Melting Boundaries and Frozen Pasts: Anthrax, Globalism, and Climate Change

The first six months of 2016 brought not only the greatest increase in global warming, surpassing all previous records.  The 378th consecutive month of land and water temperatures far above twentieth-century averages, per the World Meteorological Organization, also became an occasion to wonder how “many more surprises are ahead of us”for the director of the  World Climate Research Program, and brought the arrival of strikingly new concrete manifestations of climate change.

Increased melting of what were once thought permanently frozen regions of arctic permafrost awoke dormant but contagious anthrax.  While this latest development provided a note of panic, it seems only emblematic of the eventual cascading of after-effects that the melting of the arctic stands to bring, and of the difficulty to place them in any coherent narrative.  Yet while we use maps to organize a range of data on climate change, it’s also true that the emergence of anthrax in the Siberian tundra provides a poignant illustration of the “many more surprises” that climate change will bring.

The panic with which the melting of these formerly frozen boundaries have brought long-dormant bacteria to life, as flesh frozen seventy-five years ago have begun to decompose due to warming arctic air.   As the animal and plant remains entombed in the permafrost–which is largely constituted by the frozen remains of animal and plant matter–animal carcasses frozen for hundreds of years within the peat of the permafrost that constitute our northern continental boundary lines.  The result of releasing resilient undead bacterial microbes, some still infectious after thousand of years, at the same time as buildings, highways, runways, animal paths, pipelines or telephone poles constructed on the permafrost start to collapse.  The recent visualizations of the shrinking frontier of polar ice created by the National Snow and Ice Data Center provide little cognitive assistance to grasp the immensity of such changes, but accurately mark the disappearing boundary-line of formerly frozen sea is a terrifying contraction of the extent and continuity of arctic ice.





In an era of accelerated climate change, temperatures have been especially high in the Arctic, where temperature anomalies have been so high to cause an unprecedentedly steep decline in the extent of Arctic sea ice not only degrading habitat as the ice sheet is almost half what it was in 1979.  The construction of circumarctic maps over the past decade have charted the retreat of permafrost that has occurred with an apparent exponential heating that has already begun to displace millions of living animals–creating a migration crisis not only of polar bears, long emblematic of shrinking sea ice due to climate change–as well, of course, other looming migration crises of men, women and families.


ice flow.pngVOA


The broad distribution of growing temperatures of the arctic regions is a symbolic reminder of global nature of climate change, to be sure, but also an odd occasion in which the rise of above-normal temperatures proposed the redefinition of place–the extent of arctic ice, and also of the arctic–in ways we are only beginning to take stock.  Indeed, if Edward Casey has described how “the cataclysmic events of world wars, which have acted to undermine any secure sense of abiding place–[if not] in fact to destroy it altogether in the case of a radical anti-place such as Auschwitz; the force migrations of entire peoples, along with the continual drifting on the part of many individuals, suggesting that the world is nothing but a scene of endless displacement . . . ,” the acceleration of global warming seems to have begun to erase the notion of the arctic as a place.




The refreezing of frozen permafrost was most evident in the southernmost reaches of high summer temperatures in Siberia, where the melting of tundra peat, accelerated no doubt by contact with saline waters, have degraded the identity of the arctic in definitive ways.

So concentrated were such anomalies of surface air-temperatures in Siberia, that the news of a melting of the Permafrost suddenly gained new legs in global media as long-frozen Anthrax bacteria were found to be virulent in many of those regions, giving a specificity to the processes of changing polar temperatures that are otherwise difficult to process for many in global maps of temperature shifts.


July PolarAnomolaies.pngNSDIC




The increased melting of the polar ice-cap has opened areas of frozen peat, long submerged under snow and ice, to salty waters that have increased their decay and melting, in ways that pose to change our understanding of climate change.  The radical temperatures this past July have not only broken previous records, however, as an anomaly of air temperatures–



–produced an erosion of place, and suggests a tipping point in the notion of the arctic regions, not only redrawing the continuity of arctic ice but unveiling new microscopic entities its under what were once frozen layers.  Indeed, the revelation of undead spores of infectious anthrax in Siberia brought by the melting permafrost of the Yamal tundra has killed at least 1,500 unsuspecting reindeer, echoes bioterrorists’ dirty bombs but is the result of broadly distributed responsibility.

Climate change has proceeded far more rapidly at upper latitudes than many would have thought, with the result of warming the world’s poles–as if uncovering “dirty bombs” of bioterrorism hidden in time capsules on the edges of the inhabited world by the unprecedented thawing currently degrading regions of Siberia’s long-frozen tundra, whose grassy earth peaks out from beneath the snow in the photograph above.




The surprisingly unseasonable warming of atmospheric temperatures in upper latitudes have precipitated the unintended exhumation of reindeer carcasses as well as bodies interred on river banks–with the result of allowing undead bacteria, frozen for centuries as spores, to travel, newly nourished, by river-water to travel to infect new human hosts–placing a new wrinkle on maps of the very dramatic shrinkage of ice extent in the arctic circle beyond the recent median from the period 1980-2010.

If Anthrax can lay dormant in the ground for hundreds of years, bacteria from the last known outbreak in the mid-twentieth century stand to circulate in local water supplies, and trigger toxins that produce a range of symptoms.  Already, very tragically, a child has already been reported dead from Anthrax; and with temperatures reaching an earlier improbable 35C in Siberia, causing Bacillus anthracis, which hibernates in the form of spores to survive in frozen ground, to reappear, the deadly virus threatens to spread after flourishing in warmed ambient surroundings, as if in a laboratory Petrie dish.  Although the rural area is predominantly populated by nomadic herders and reindeer, the specter of anthrax being loosed in any populated areas comes to rival Zika virus as an emblem of an approaching dystopian future, where rising temperatures offer new vectors for diseases to travel over broader distances than ever before, echoing fears of the movement of Ebola–but now flaring up over unpredictably large expanses by new vectors of transmission.


countries-with-reported-active-zika-transmissionBroadening map of Zika transmission born by mosquitoes beyond its original locations/CDC


Global panic around the prospect of further infections has grown after Anthrax was diagnosed in eight people.  Although the danger of such an emergent infection had been predicted last fall in an academic research paper, the fear that warming climates might release long-frozen viruses and other pathogens, as if in a scenario from Jurassic Park.  The individual death from the emergent virus that has long been feared may warrant panic.

But the prospect of its spread as a result of rising polar temperatures seems oddly triggered by familiarity with the ominous use of maps to try to describe narratives of impending global catastrophes caused by expansive climate change, which undoubtedly invest the fears of viral contagion with a still greater sense of impending disaster.  It almost seems is as if the actual disaster of climate change has lent sudden dramatic focus in the potential emergence of long-buried anthrax, as the ice concentration in northern regions has declined to unheard of levels and rarely expands outside the polar region, and the thickness of ice has begun to fluctuate wildly with warming polar airs.







Global media outlets have recently broadcast panic in headlines that scream “Thawing Reindeer Carcasses Trapped in Ice Unleash Anthrax in Siberia.”  Stories of the evacuation of as many as 160 nomadic herders from the infection hotspot and area placed under quarantine seem a post-modern confusion of the local and the anthropogenic intriguing for its unexpected causal links suggestive of chaos theory as much as science.  But it suggests all the new ingredients of a pop post-modern apocalypse, from cross-species infections to zombie DNA to super-bacteria. The increasingly panicked reporting of the outbreak in global media prompts reflexive alarms about scenarios of global extinction with an immediacy global that, however paradoxically, warming sadly rarely possesses.




The parallel disappearance of arctic ice Arctic warming would provoke a devastating seven meter rise in global sea level:  but the increasing sensitivity of the highest latitudes to global warming, due to the “arctic amplification” of climate change, positive feedback effects that make the prediction of future temperatures difficult and make its cascading climactic consequences difficulty–or impossible–to map or foresee through computer models. The somewhat oxymoronic increase of oxymoronic “Arctic heat” itself an artifact of climate change, currently registering a six degree average increase from previous decades (i.e., thirteen degrees Fahrenheit).  The reduction of sea ice is met by less land ice–and a retreating regions of once-continuous permafrost in the northern boundaries of continents–rarely apparent on national maps, but whose melting stands to release more greenhouse gases, from methane to carbon gasses, but rewrite the region’s habitat in ways difficult to map.  One can, to be sure, try to comprehend the immensity of cascading change by relating the extent of ongoing change of its climate to local consequences:




Such off-the-charts local rise in air temperature have rewritten our cognitive relation to what was known as permafrost–a region permanently frozen–that had receded by 1998, and whose degradation has been unexpectedly accelerated by pockets of warm air:  arctic warming that has decreased not only the ice-cover of the Arctic Sea to 14.27 million sq km at its wintertime peak–down almost a third of a million sq. km. from the previous year, and over a million sq km from the average of 1981-2010, and being far thinner than it once was, as well as less than half its former size–creating a massive change in habitat as well as an excavation of once partly decomposed bones and vegetal life, that might be imagined as the unexpected delivery into the global ecosystem of a huge compost bin.


mapping permafrost 1998.pngWeather Underground


A stereographic polar projection charts glacial motion at the ice cap from satellite radar interferometry of 300 planetary orbits from 2007-9 to map the speed at which tributary glaciers of the north pole are moving toward the ocean, in a spectrum distinguishing the velocity of glaciers and ice sheet moving in different once-frozen regions to the sea, providing a different way to map the speed of warming that stand to further fragment Antarctica’s ice divides, as warming streams push masses from the South Pole, discharging ice and sediment from a formerly unitary sheet at differing speeds, as Antarctica threatens to disappear gradually over time, its ice shell faulting and sheet ice melting into the sea:


Antartic velocities of drift

Science 333 (6048) Rignot-Mouginot-Scheuchl; polar stereographic at 71 degrees south; derived from ALOS PALSAR, Envirostat ASAR, ERS-1/2 satellite radar interferometry


The motion map developed by Eric Rignot in 2007-9 suggestively shows the draining of a continent, whose ice is flowing into the surrounding ocean from its glacial interior.



Rignot et al., 2007-9


The broad shifts in polar temperatures in early August 2016 suggest a similar massive retreat of arctic ice, in a similar false-color sea ice map.


arctic-sea-ice-early-augustUniversity of Bremen


Is the appearance of anthrax an illustration of the difficulty to grasp a narrative of climate change, or a new way to locate oneself in the ever-expanding ramifications of the disappearance of once continuously frozen lands?

The increasing thin-ness of arctic ice are mirrored in the constraints on habitat caused by the contraction of permafrost.  Scientists have started to widely examine by a broad distribution of bore holes as the process of climate change has come to challenges our very language for the polar region.  As its long-attributed permanence has begun to thaw, and layers of its once frozen soil incrementally starts to change and the “dead” organic lands of peat lands are no longer continuously frozen, the permafrost is no longer nearly so permanent as once thought.  The discontinuously frozen regions of former “permafrost” suggest the extent to which climate change may remove the world from the very descriptive language we once used–and a disruption of what was once the largest continuous region of permafrost but undoing the language by which it was long referred.




The gradual thawing or degrading of once-icy permafrost creates a global ecological crisis, as temperatures up to a meter below ground in what were once perennially frozen grounds  gradually warmed from the 1960s and approached melting-points by the 1990s.  If the majority of ice is concentrated in the upper tens of meters of permafrost regions, even as permafrost remains stable, regions which contained water and remains in their upper meters are increasingly thawing and degrading, releasing excess water that won’t drain, and the subsequent over-saturation of the ground may kill trees, create sinkholes, and not only exposing land but prompting a rich layer of microbial activity to come to life.

Could its emergence  or uncovering ever be mapped over time in a similarly compelling way?  Probably not:  when Bill McKibben tweets about the (re)appearance of Anthrax cases–“Good God.  As Siberian permafrost thaws, old anthrax bacteria coming to life“–it was undoubtedly to make a broader point, but the story of how a heat-wave prompted a spate of anthrax infections suggests a range of new concrete vectors to consider climate change as removing anthrax from the controlled conditions of the laboratory, and somehow to convert the landscape into a laboratory of transmission of uncontrolled circumstances where there exist no Hazmat suits.  But the laboratory is now located in the tundra.




But as much as laboratory life, global warming is something akin to the lifting of one of the seven seals of the Book of Revelations, although the seal is opened by the material melting of the permafrost–with the seven heads of the red dragon arising from the seas in Revelations 13 unleashed by arctic amplification, and the Beast from the Seas cascading effects of the melting of sea ice and sea-level rise, include the melting of glaciers, release of long-dormant anthrax, sinkholes, both methane and carbon gasses, and the breaching of long-buried radioactive waste, fuels, and long-buried PCB’s.  The exponential loss of the ice sheet in Greenland or Antarctic seems a new vision of the apocalypse, marked by the arrival of the Beast, imagined by the poet and watercolorist William Blake as witness the apocalyptic arrival of the seven-headed Beast surging up from the oceanic waves–in a terrifyingly phantasmagoric vision of apocalypse and the opening of the seven seals whose very immensity awes its observer.


Blakebeast1bg.jpgNational Gallery of Art


While tongue-in-cheek to an extent, the Blakian vision of the Beast was tied to the pollution of the oceans by Amrit Kaur Singh, in which, in true millennia fashion, one of head of the blue Beast rising from he sea gushes petroleum back into the ocean waters–


the beast-of-revelation_iw.jpgSingh Twins, 2000


–and if heavy-handed in its comic-book like rendition of a grotesque in day-glo colors, affords the sort of present-day immediacy to the seven-headed Beast rising from the once-clean seas which was echoed in the panic over the discovery of infectious Anthrax bacilli as part of the momentous arrival of the seven horsemen beneath the fiery Angle of Revelation, dwarfing a human witness unable to comprehend or transcribe it on his scroll.


14.81.1William Blake, “Angel of Revelation” (Metropolitan Museum of Art)


If Blake positioned St. John of Patmos before the Angle of Revelation, as if trying to comprehend the immensity of the scene, the exponential warming of the polar ice-caps is particularly challenging comprehend, or indeed to trace to map over time.  The non-linear progress of global melting is just beginning to be understood, and it prompts increasingly nightmarish scenarios.  Blake seems an apt analogy, if only because the color-enhanced maps of arctic warming and “greening” provide the most effective and persuasive tools to model climate change at increased rates of melting in northern latitudes, or the increased vegetation already apparent in northern climes from the Arctic to Boreal Forests, as in this image of 2013using NOAA AVHHR data on MODIS satellites recorded from 1982-2010.


Climate-Change-Shifts-Northern-Growing-SeasonsGodard Space Flight Center Visualization Studio


The infection of 2,300 reindeer in Siberia with anthrax exemplify the potential of a regeneration of microbial bacteria in the far Northern climes.  In so doing, their rebirth suggests the extent of dangers from environmental poisons in an era of climate change, caused by the considerable elevation of polar temperatures in recent years in one of the odder consequences of global warming.  Indeed, the increasing temperature anomalies in polar regions including the Siberian permafrost encourage the release of frozen anthrax spores in the frozen human and animal, creating new vectors for frozen bacterial strains to receive new leases on life in a suddenly provide nourishing ambient, as the river banks where nomadic tribes have long improvised graves for the dead begin to thaw.  As once-frozen bacterial strains enter local water supplies, incubating waters carry them to increasing populations of animals who have rarely been exposed in which to reproduce.  The local surprises that are found in the thawing of the permafrost stands to uncover suggests a change in the biosphere–as well as a threat impacting the inhabited word.

Although climate change is anthropogenic in nature, is it time to consider arctic warming and climate change beyond potential effects on the inhabited world evident in an anthropocentric perspective?  The increased growth of “Arctic warming” is evident in recent mappings of global temperature anomalies, which suggest the amplification of high temperatures in northernmost latitudes more apparent in maps than they are able to be explained–


imrs-3.php.pngTemperature Anomalies in North Pole/NASA Goddard Institute


–although the vicious cycle of the warming of the ground caused by the emergence of methane gases offers one explanation of such unexpected temperature anomalies.




The dramatic warming of arctic airspace compared to the 1981-2010 average can be easily mapped in a vivid spectrum from a slightly different polar projection from the past weeks suggests lower temperatures that normal in the East Siberian Sea over previous decades–


Arctic Airspace.png

–but a considerable expansion of the “early melt” onset of regions on the edge of the polar permafrost to challenge the land/permafrost divide in deeply disquieting ways:


early melt.png


The related story of vampiric rebirth of bacteria from frozen corpses in the permafrost may resemble science fiction more than science, but reflects how the organism of anthrax, after hibernating for centuries as frozen spores to survive  in dormant form, are released with new virulence as thawing with higher temperatures allows them regain bacterial form–and feed on a replenished sources of nourishment the newly “thawed permafrost” supplies. The increased “Arctic amplification” of temperatures has created warmer airs and reduced expected sea ice by some 400,000 square miles last January, as sea ice presence declined below 2011-12 levels, and far below the 1981-2010 average, and have helped return lost anthrax strains to threaten inhabited world.

Some sustain that the bacteria in fact derive from Soviet labs, distributed only to lend credence to a “global warming” hoax–as if recycling a new Cold War image of global terror, updated to include biological warfare–maps of climate change have so broadly challenged us to comprehend change on a global scale that they seem to be difficult to reconcile with or include local perspectives.  There is some delicious irony to read the effects of climate change interpreted through fears of  bioterrorism, as if intentional bacterial release was used to bolster faulty evidence for a credulous public, the viewpoint is most likely temporally displaced Cold War paranoia, obstructing actual global fears.

But an actual environmental disaster looming with the disappearance of the permafrost, as the subterranean nuclear base that was established by the US Army in the northwestern ice sheet of Greenland ice sheet in what was believed to remain a “dry snow zone” of the ice sheet, where melting never occurred, at the height of the Cold War in 1959.  In Camp Century, by the US Army Corps of Engineers stored a cocktail of radioactive coolant, PCB’s and diesel fuel “entombed” in tunnels then believed to be permanently interred under ice:  the stockpile of hazardous waste now feared to be exposed by the end of the century, should current warming rates continue, and the ice sheet keep disappearing at a rate of 8,000 tons per second.  The possibility poses questions about responsibilities of containing a virtual flood of physical, chemical, biological, and radioactive wastes, as the ice sheet that was though permanently frozen begins to disintegrate to ocean water and to be released as a cocktail into a radically shifting ecosystem.


velocity of ice flow off Greenland.pngA–Howat et al, 2014; B–Joughin, et al., 2010


The increased extent of arctic greening caused by rising temperatures at the north pole have created a rich resource of nourishment for newly reborn bacteria raises questions about the unforeseen expansion of local consequences of global change.  The hospitalization of some seventy-two nomadic herders for anthrax infections–including over forty children–suggests just how dangerous the return of the “Siberian plague,” last experienced in the region or epidemiologically registered back in 1941, would be provoked by the sustained melting of permafrost across much of the arctic.  The climactic exhumation of buried corpses from the banks of Siberian rivers suggest the need to prepare for increasingly unforeseen time warp of habitats that global climate change stands to unleash, and that are yet be included or even registered in color-enhanced maps of expanding Arctic greenspace in ways that would have been rarely considered twenty years ago, where “Arctic Greening” stands as an alternative surrogate for Global Warming.


imrs.phpNASA/Landsat satellite photography


The extent of sea ice naturally fluctuates in seasons, but this year has fluctuated far more than it has in earlier years.   As the extent of winter ice in Arctic seas contracts each year,  fears of impending sea-level rise in sub-Arctic lands grow, and fewer areas possess even a sixth of marine ice:


Arct Ice ExtWashington Post (as of February 16, 2016)


Areas with 15% sea ice


The results of this melting of the ground, even more than the melting of sea ice, stands to unleash changes in local ecosystems and environment that are perhaps often obscured by our dazzling ability to try to focus on a global picture, perhaps partly because they are so difficult to integrate within regional maps of temperature or landcover change, and partly because the process and mechanics of planetary climate change are so difficult to grasp.

Perhaps we’re searching for the integration of processes of change in land, water, and ice in a map of global warming or polar melting, maybe demanding multiple graphs, to better comprehend and mediate the massive cascading of a range of environmental consequences of local changes in land and sea cover in relation to local temperature rise.

The impossibility to grasp the consequences of mass loss in the Greenland ice sheet, permafrost, and antarctic ice sheet Indeed, the projected shifts in global temperatures over the next half-century and beyond suggest a dramatic warming of the polar regions’ surface air temperature in recent simulations suggest that while the melting of ice sheets might provoke a temporary lessening of global climate change,–although with different catastrophic results.




Filed under arctic, Climate Change, data visualization, ecological disasters, Global Warming, mapping climate change

The Imagined and Actual Geography of Brexit: Topologies of Social Anxiety

Crossing to Calais on the Eurostar, I looked out the window for migrant camps who had been so central to the “Brexit” referendum by which  England recently left the European Union.  No migrant camps were in evidence from the train.  And when the train stopped for unforeseen difficulties due to people on the tracks, I couldn’t but wonder how it related to those risking lives to enter the tunnel running beneath the Channel, whom local police have long quarantined in semi-permanent “homes” of converted shipping containers.  While the Eurostar connected two railway stations, and half of London and Paris was glued to the European Cup, the “Brexit” vote revealed a hiving off of about a third of Britain similarly eager to separate itself from the European Union–as voters voted, probably unaware of the consequences, in a plebiscite that trumped parliamentary politics in anti-democratic ways.  The precarity of living in shipping containers now seems to be about as great as that of the European Union.

English voters on the Referendum were presented with almost dizzying fears of immigration and declining social services that were impossible to visualize adequately.  In an onslaught that dominated the news and challenged voters’ attention spans and moral compass, “Leave” flyers used fear to mobilize against remaining in the European Union.  In a canny onslaught and bid for attention, reminiscent of right-wing politicians, flyers of  “Leave” raised the specter of fears of immigration policies out of control  and wrested away by a European Union whose member states stood only to escalate.  The eventuality of remaining in the Eu was seen as an abdication of responsibilities, and a misplaced trust in Brussels to control the entry of refugees and Eastern Europeans seeking jobs into the UK:  if migration to the UK had grown to above a quarter of a million–“the equivalent of a city the size of Newcastle“–the arrival of two million over the coming decade mandated by “free movement of people”  conjured a suitably dystopian future.  Voting to Remain in the European Union was to accept this lack of control, and the subordination of British law to a European Court, while Leave provided an opportunity to check the flow of migrants and take what control was possible into one’s own hands, in hopes to restore power to a local level.  The argument of empowerment may have been deluded, but promised to return £350 million in taxes flowing to Brussels, and the prospect of immigration growth once such “candidate countries” like Turkey, Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro joined Romania, Bulgaria, and Croatia, all at a cost of nearly £1.8 billion.

The dizzying expansion of a region without frontiers was joined by a cry “to take back control” of England’s future.  The Referendum was presented as “our last chance to take back control,” a virtual mantra of the Leave campaign, and control “our borders” and international “influence” lest the nation be filled with immigrants against who one can draw no clear border.  With the Turkey, Serbia, and Macedonia joining the EU, ran the implicit message, Syrian refugees were bound to be waiting at the gates as well, without a compelling way to turn them back.


EU-523932.jpgDaily Express


Such a compelling framing of the debate about the nation’s compromised future in a landscape of expanding “rights” fostered fears of an end of public futures, “without handing our permanent control to people we cannot vote out”–as if the vote presented the last attempt at independence, ignoring the special relation of the UK had long insisted to the EU.  To be sure, the Leave campaign also increased regulations that the EU introduced, without suggesting other financial benefits.

But the unprecedented misinformed plebiscite gave voice to a deep unease with parliamentary deals that brokered the terms of England’s membership in the European Union in ways that undermined the accumulated responsibilities that the EU has gained to respond to global refugee crises–a role that has been foisted upon it by the economic promise Europe continues to offer as a zone without apparent national frontiers.  While we’ve been told by informed voices that the EU “had it coming,” whatever that means, or that the current European Union compromised British demands, or warned that the creation of social and political affinities could ever follow from enforced economic union, or give rise to public confidence, rejection by plebiscite of membership in the European Union subverted democracy, by a campaign bred from xenophobic fears and assertions the EU “has failed Britain” as a whole.  Despite the many tired dichotomies that have been extracted ad nauseam from data visualizations of the EU Referendum–from old v. young, north v. south, working class v. metropolitan elites; educated v. non-graduates; identifying as “English” v. cosmopolites–the complexion that has redefined the country reflects a growing retrograde tendency of rejecting the status quo and belief in the benefits of hiving off that was undemocratic and displayed  a perverse nostalgia of deeply conservative roots.


Queen Backs Brexit!.png


The referendum that former Prime Minister David Cameron presented as a panacea or safety valve to staunch opposition to the EU in Great Britain encouraged one of the most badly informed electorates in memory to protest the entrance of eastern Europeans into the country, and the perception of economic malaise and overburdened public services, and erase the benefit of free trade accords and that led to considerable economic growth.  The economic amnesia Brexit provoked led to a massive rejection of the national government and indeed political elites, even when undermining their economic interests, producing the increasing likelihood that many wish to leave Britain even among working class groups in England and Wales, and many voters more angry about the EU government than aware of the actual impact on trade relations to Europe or manufacturing and health standards.  Although turnout was in general quite high, with 30 million expressing their opinion at the ballot box, or some 72%, the vote was predicted to be determined by turn-out, and the distribution of votes varied.  If most in Scotland turned out, many in London and in northern Ireland voting less, and many “Leave” regions turning out to vote intensely–and turnout markedly lower in areas with greater numbers of younger voters–who tended to vote to Remain in reflection of their economic futures, especially in areas with greater student populations in relative to their size.





What was Cameron thinking in opening up this question to a plebiscite that gave greater voice to those with stronger opinions, and indeed in opening up a question of particular complexity to a public yea or nay vote that hinged on turn-out?  Democratic “consent” to membership in the EU was long been “wafer thin” in much of Britain, and low turnout among the young gave a greater share of the vote to Brexit.  But the opportunity that the vote offered many the chance to decamp from the EU in ways few intended.  For during a refugee crisis, the cards were steeply stacked the party reduced to take “Remain” as its slogan, although the very passivity of whose construction suggested an absence of cogent arguments to respond to false promises of helping England’s shaky economy, persistent low wages, growing waiting times at National Health Service, and rising rents–all of which were represented as stretched thin by serving migrant workers and their families, and rising rents.

Partisans of “Leave” tapped such concerns so effectively that despite the value of data visualizations in anatomizing and describing the broad distribution of adherents mobilized behind a “Leave” mandate, the vote seems little understood or analyzed for its appeal as in its ramifications, and has created an ongoing puzzle about what place of England will now occupy in relation to the EU–or how the EU will look.




How to map the vote’s distribution has received increasing attention from the experts of data visualization.  But limits of understanding what motivated the vote, or underlay the popularity of Leave in many regions of England, is evidenced by the surprising credibility among both journalists as well as economists of a fake data vis comparison that used a black and white version of the distribution of the vote to suggest that the Referendum reflected fatal cases of actual brain degeneration, even by using an identical black and white image of the vote breakdown to project it in the past as if it offered a precedent–and although the ridiculousness of explaining the divides of voters around the Referendum in terms of the outbreak of a deadly disease are preposterous, the clear “hiving off” of the blue-hued regions where Leave was victorious suggest a volitional subtraction of oneself from the nation’s interests–as if a metaphor for the self-inflicted social illness orchestrated by the Leave campaign.



–which might explain the still not clearly understood break-down of a vote that many long assumed would result in staying in the EU.  The popularity of its appeal may have suggested desperation of explaining of the Referendum’s actual results:  social media repostings of the comparison disguised the fraudulence with which it converted the EU Referendum to black and white half-tones in its alleged precursor, as if to manufacture a precedent from the very same map.  The ease with which the data vis fooled viewers eager to give credence to such data visualizations’ explanatory power despite the thin-ness of its credibility, creation of interactive maps took the joke still farther, but removed attention from how the plebiscite preyed on increased fears of England being dragged down by taking on economic obligations to EU countries and obligations to mobility of refugees across national borders, and indeed to an apparent global situation that had spun out of England’s control.

Those encamped in Calais have little to do with this struggle, but stood for the migrant workers Britain has long eagerly accepted, but is loathe to offer benefits, and see as diminishing jobs and the future of work.  The encampment of refugees and prospective immigrants in Calais has everything to do with the imagined geography of Brexit.  But if it has little to do with the actual geography of Brexit–despite threats of Calais’ mayor to cease patrolling the French frontier as refugees risk their lives to cross the territorial frontier at the tunnel’s mouth–the distribution of voters who so hastily decided to steer the country away from the European Union–even if the electorate was poorly educated about the consequences of the referendum of a record-breaking 72% turn-out.  If turn-out was long argued to central to the vote, the broad variations on an issue of such considerable national relevance–if not necessitating compulsory voting–deserves as broad a vote as possible given its broad ramifications.  Despite the readiness to let England go its own way of some EU countries, different levels of voter turnout nation-wide suggest a distinct set of regions spoke more loudly–of those regions which were more homogeneous in character, where support for the Referendum grew, analogously to how an older demographic group of voters, more resistant to globalization, most readily accepted the Referendum to leave Europe, even if they were unclear on its consequences–a disparity in turn-out in an election where London’s fate was central, but other regions held the nation hostage in an election long suspected to hinge on voter turn-out.


TUrnout EU.pngDaniel J Dunford


Indeed, the dominant place British voters gave immigration in defining the reasons for their vote in the EU referendum–far above the economy–suggest how distorted the campaign has become, and how tortured its engagement of a geographical imaginaries.  The “Brexit” vote to divorce England from the EU was cast as helping the sluggish English economy by securing its borders in response to the threat of the arrival of further refugees and migrants.  Both are imagined to have continued to lower wages across the UK, and stretched thin the safety net of work-benefits the government provides:  most migrants entering the UK are from Eastern Europe, rather than Syria, but the encamped refugees living in Calais were central to the rhetoric of the debate in an imagined geography.  For the presence of migrants at Calais provided a specter that haunted the vote as it continues to haunt Europe, even as Britain’s Prime Minister has focussed on protectionist safeguards for England rather than humanitarian policies of migration.  England readily accepted eastern European migrant works at first, but the expansion of the fear of migration hard to adequately represent on any map:   it remained a potent selling point of Brexit, about whose fate David Cameron and others have sought to triangulate the relation of England to the EU for a generation, after Cameron wrangled a deal to restrict rights of newly arriving eastern European migrants to claim in-work benefits in the UK, or send child-support overseas, in ways long painted as draining the economy.  What sort of agreement a Tory-led government now seeks to negotiate with the EU is mystifying to all, but over the past months, the unholy alliance of UKIP and Leave.EU have painted Brussels as entrapping the UK in tentacular regulations destined to paralyze its struggling economy.

So much is illustrated by the xenophobic billboard widely circulated by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), whose quite misleading campaign advertisement in the recent Referendum on remaining in the European Union showed endless hordes of migrants, advancing overwhelmingly as if to England, “abandoned” by the EU.   The xenophobic image triggered a 57% rise in reported incidents of anti-immigrant hate crimes after the Brexit vote–hate crimes directed most often to Eastern Europeans, rather than Syrians, gypsies, or others–but helped win the vote.  The racialized stereotyping of immigrants as dark-skinned, if not so dark-skinned as that tanned person of color, UKIP leader Nigel Farage, has been noted–but while the poster was disowned by Leave.EU, it wasn’t by their largest donor, who also funds UKIP, and licensed Jeff Mitchell’s image showing some of  47,000 refugees said to have entered Slovenia being led to the Brezice refugee camp as an icon of England’s inability to defend its own borders.  The image offers a taste of the “false populism” of the Leave campaign, which boasted of its ability to express British interests, in inviting people to “take back control,” but providing no long-term plan for raising wages or improving public health policies.


migrnts EU has failed.pngUKIP’s Nigel Farage before Brexit poster, with protestor’s arm entering from left


The refugees shown the image were leaving Croatia for Slovenia, far from Britain’s bounds, and few refugees from Sudan or Syria have entered the United Kingdom, but the much-diffused photograph taken by Getty Images’ Jeff Mitchell helped prompt Slovenia to erect fences to stop the influx of migrants, but was licensed to exploit an image associated with the multitude of refugees unable to be controlled in the European Union’s open border policy, and an icon of the inability to prevent their flow–if the photograph was cropped to conceal the police at its front.  Its display on twenty vans that fanned across London hoped to drive up fear of non-white immigrants, as Farage sought to impress on audiences the need  to “take back control” of the nation’s borders, by fears of attacks by terrorists posing as refugees:  “Every one of these can get to Calais,” the UKIP leader claimed. “We know how bad our government is at defending our borders, and within a few years all of these people will have EU passports.”  Rarely was an open election so clearly waged or won on such misinformation. Even now, current Prime Minister David Cameron has insisted that England’s government have control over immigration, although Britain barely faces the immigration crises of other EU or Schengen nations.



Migration of Refugees to Europe, 2105

Although a million refugees have fled to Europe, most sought asylum in Germany or Scandinavia among Schengen countries.  Yet England remains almost the only country without a wall or planned boundary barrier surrounding its national frontiers–and the notion that the EU would be the guardian of Britain’s boundaries was.


europe-borders-and-fences-map_02.png.jpegBusiness Insider (March, 2016)


The fear of arriving immigrants that Farage summoned for British voters was less tied to the actual arrival of migrants, but while the actual image showed an orderly entrance, it exploited the fear and anxiety of immigration that it provoked for openly ideological ends.




To be sure, the arrival of refugees was not the only way that the Leave.EU campaign presented its demands–which ranged from the drag on Health Services to education for English subjects–but enfolded these arguments, and put a bit of background radiation, suggesting a subliminal concern of the UKIP-inspired “Leave” voters, repeatedly warned of or threatened with a fall in public services should Britain remain in the EU.  The subliminal message was scarcely below panicked imprecations to “stop” schools from being oversubscribed and “over-run,” social services deluged, and a social situation bound to deteriorate further with “net migration currently over 330,000 a year . . . driving our fastest population growth in nearly one hundred years”; the crossing guard holding the crossing sign in bumper to bumper traffic provided an objective correlative of over-crowding, at the same time as “chronic levels of immigration have put our GP surgeries, hospitals and health services on the critical list” with health services “already stretched.”


Schools Over-RunOver Sretched Health Services


1.  Although the referendum may not be binding, the rhetoric of its presentation was of bizarrely psychological to much of England, where despite the relative rarity of immigration from refugees, the EU had long been demonized by the UKIP party of Nigel Farage as a compromise of British sovereignty that must be rejected–and indeed south to commemorate the surprise victory of Brexit in the Referendum as if the vote of June 23 actually deserved to be considered of “Independence Day” for the UK.  For Farage argued that refugees had been not only abandoned by the EU, but stand to be either arriving in England and only slightly more subliminally that EU policies will abandon England.  The absence of borders that the refugees have come to symbolize provided the basis to redraw England’s borders in eager ways, and indeed bring Scotland with it.  But the notion that the EU, and not the English government, stands to fail the English, provided a particularly deceptive talking point, echoed in the injunction “BeLeave in Briton!

The reduction of “debate” to such sound byte-sized slogans hardly took into account economic questions of remaining in the common market, or indeed of defining a common policy for keeping refugees from entering England from Calais.  “Leave” presented itself as a call to take charge of migrant workers in Britain, a call that made little actual sense, which only gained sense only when framed as an individual rather than collective choice.




The energized injunction to “take control” rejected a neoliberal elite, and dismissed the metropolitan, liberal, university-educated politicians for good measure at the same time.  While the “Stay” seemed less considered, in an odd way, until it hit on “Remain” as a more decorous activity–“Stay” sounded a bit like what one would say to a dog–“Remain” never summoned logic as a campaign, while the ad for Leave borrowed, perhaps unsurprisingly, stills of post-war refugees “who flooded Europe’s cities” in the popular 2005 BBC documentary, aired on Netflix, Auschwitz: The Nazis and The Final Solution.


tv hitler ad.pngBBC


–as the notion of “parasites, undermining their host countries” were so close to the sentiments of many “Leave” voters to make one wonder about the pitch.)  The vote to break from the European Union had been exacerbated by the flow of refugees, an issue that seems destined to reshape global politics for this new century, and indeed by the ongoing participation of England in the ongoing unending war against terror that has continued in the Middle East.  And if the vote slightly echoed the 1975 Referendum to join the Common Market, in its strong support from Scotland and Northern Ireland, as London and Liverpool, so much of the Midlands swung Leave to shock the country and world.


Common Market 1975:EU 2016.pngBBC


For the Brexit victory in England was pronouncedly anti-urban in its distribution, if the  rural/urban divide was not only sole division it revealed in the country by any means–much as the towns with highest levels of unemployment went most solidly for “Leave.”

The Referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union was almost not called, and is probably the Sort of Decision Best Left to Elected Officials, let alone when the turn-out for the vote was uneven, with many areas where younger voters didn’t turn out.  Yet David Cameron has promised the possibility of such a Referendum on the UK’s membership in the European Union in his Conservative campaign.  However, when what Cameron saw as an easy vote was reframed as a “revolt” against the acceptance of immigrants by the United Kingdom Independence Party’s Nigel Farage, “Leave” won support from those most unable to tolerate their presence–while remaining understood by Scotland and Ireland in toto as Something We Just Don’t Want.  The distribution of votes should be explored to reveal the demographics of the appeal of xenophobic rhetoric and knee-jerk patriotism at the Guardian’s interactive map of the local distribution of ridings that suggests just how local much of the reaction to the Referendum:


Detailed Brexit Breakdown

Guardian’s interactive map


Anti-London anger was so strong across the UK to be a large mobilizer of votes.  Indeed, with yellow-journalist-turned-politician Boris Johnson using weekly columns in the Telegraph to generate rancor at the EU, the possibility London might secede from the UK was suggested by Avinash Tharoor as a possibility before the shock vote, and has provoked considerable debate as an actual possibility in recent days–after all, if London’s population is greater than Scotland, why can’t it secede as well?

The argument runs in clear economic ways as well:  with the local costs of leaving the EU not widely considered or discussed during the election, the loss of property value in London is high–as well the loss to Britain of access to the entire European market, the benefit of foreign access to those markets by Anglophones wishing a base located in the UK have led London to be a desired city for many corporations seeking access to the EU.  The presence of many immigrants in the international city have led to recent calls for the city to do just that.

The elegant split across the islands is broken down with effect if a bit less subtly when one maps the vote onto a terrestrial projection attending less to its complexion.  The split remains as clear, although the sheer scale and strength of the London vote is less clear:


Andrew X Hill


But what lead the country to seem to break in half?  The deeply psychological appeal of the so-called United Kingdom Independence Party’s call hope to “take back control” and “breaking free” offered a welcome if temporary sense of long denied political agency, and widely presented as such to the electorate.  And the constituents to whom this call to action appealed demand to be examined and unpacked.  Former newspaperman Boris Johnson invited English voters to be brave enough “to take back control from a EU that has become too opaque and not accountable enough to the people,” as if to summon their inner strength, and later commended them for their bravery.  The Referendum was presented with urgency as “our last chance to take back control” of ties to the EU that cost £350 million each week in contributed fees–as if there was no return in trade advantages of such membership fees.  Other demands were listed at choice–and include staving off the threatened arrival of migrants destined to destroy the nation’s social services without control over borders.  These are often migrants from EU countries in Europe, as much as Syrians from Calais.

Yet the notion of a “victory for the real people” that the “Leave” boasted is, of course, an evanescent one, even if, as UKIP’s Nigel Farage gloated, what was Fringe has gone centerstage and “The Eurosceptic genie is out of the bottle and it will not be put back.”  If Brexit is in some sense the creation of Farage’s skill as a hectoring orator and wordsmith to win voters’  attention, he may succeed in redrawing the map.  While the collective vote was presented as a rallying cry for England–“BeLeave in Briton!”–the desire for breaking with collective treaties, financial arrangements and responsibilities.  As much as a “victory for decent people” carried insinuations of the corrupt nature of the European Union and Brussels always dear to Britain, the geographic imaginary of a severance from Europe was not particularly full-hearted and hard to balance with the longstanding image of England as European–rather than reflect a geographic imaginary, it reflected a degree of desperation with a Belgium long painted as bureaucratic and out-of-touch, if not a surrogate for London and globalism itself.  Indeed, the insinuation that government had refused to “listen” to concerns on immigration led Johnson and friends to transform the Referendum on EU membership into a populist cause despite its lack of good sense.

The false populism of the campaign was not, incredibly, readily detected by many, so drenched was it in patriotism and old calls for English independence in the face of an imagined onslaught of foreign immigrants:  for a vote to “remain” would allow the EU to control migration, trade, counter-terrorism, at taxes, and to have an ability to overrule our laws, and boost our own international influence.  Slogans like It’s safer to take back control than to keep giving away power and money every year to the EU were more potent than the assertion of being better off–and the addition of  £91 billion to the English economy.  The risks of leaving the European Union seemed to be far less than the worries, stoked by Johnson and allies, of the drowning of England in the open debts and offers of openness to immigrants.  Even former Prime Minister David Cameron could only promise to negotiate “a better deal for England” in the European Union–as if to offer to renegotiate England’s relation to the EU, and secure the better deal that it actually deserved–the image that the Union Jack was being diminished by the laws made in Brussels reclaimed a national imaginary with little relation to actual geography, let alone economics, by summoning an old symbolic map of patriotism to do its dirty work.


Ukip RUNS billboard


The assertion that Britain had the “right” to demand such a better deal from Europe, which has larger issues on its plate, of course runs against the notion of the Union.  The fear that the EU would take control over Britain, and constitute an attack on its future integrity, was presented by politicians supporting “Leave” as a frightening eventuality that voters could prevent, and in so doing change the course of history:  the notion of breaking from Europe and from the EU policy on refugees was not coherent–as it abandoned the notion of a common policy on refugees already in Europe, by going alone–but the vote to separate from Europe offered a sensation of agency in an increasingly globalized world.  If Banksy cast EU pigeons setting themselves off in a flock from a colorful African bird, bearing signage “Keep off our Worms“–in an image attacked for racism and destroyed–English voters seem to have set themselves apart from hopes of a coherent plan on refugees, throwing up their hands in disgust out of deep-set fears, thinking themselves a breed apart.


scrubbed banksy!.pngBanksy, from Scrubbed Out Banksy


The claims provided logic to a campaign that had no actual logic by granting voters agency–to rediscover control, without any future narrative assessing the effects on England of exiting the EU.  If “Leave” freely lied in linking the EU to failed immigration policies without any actual data–about the issue of controlling national borders, and predicting the strain this inability could create, as if this were a factual representation of the world–and appeal both to emotions, and a sense of the potential disempowerment of being overwhelmed by a world lying beyond their control.  No longer is the globe as clearly made up of Europe and others, with the longstanding integrity of England to Europe communicated on globes dating from Jean de Dinteville in Holbein’s The Ambassadors, where it is an icon of worldliness rather than isolation:


Holbein glboe.png

Holb globe.JPG

holbein_europe.jpgNational Gallery


The tortured logic that the arrival of an uncontrollable inflow of refugees to Britain would change the nation to such an extent that people would be ultimately stripped of any agency to change it–the logic of “Leave,” for what it is worth–to return the country to austerity because of the inefficiency of the EU is not only an anti-government.  The summoning of an anti-bureaucrat argument of false populism is about the search for an illusory prosperity and a sense that the data on trade and economic balance sheets revealed Britain was being taken advantage of.  The fear that was amplified by the inability of the EU to come to the financial rescue of Greece and southern Europe, and the sense that English interests might also not be protected, or that the EU was linked to the British economy–hinting none too subtly England’s interests were forgotten by the EU.


UKIP take control billboard


Couldn’t the money not be better spent on the National Health Services?, Leave asked, as if it were a simple matter of reallocating funds that disappeared down a black hole, as if to shore up the NHS that the extension of benefits to migrant workers has stretched so thin.


VOTE leave NHS.png


The dismissal of any economic forecasts of the difficulties of leaving the EU disdained as “bad data” massaged by interests and not an actual eventuality–was attacked as interested opinion, rather than with credible objectivity.  The lack of attention speaks to being overwhelmed by an abundance of data and prognostications, hiding interests and removed from fact.  England was as failed by the EU as the streams of refugees arriving from Syria and the Middle East, UKIP messaged, and in taking back charge of our borders we can reclaim our destiny.




The inadequacy of actual facts lead to the logic-free imperative of “breaking free” and “taking back,” as if self-determination had been confiscated by bureaucrats in the EU.  Even as rehearsed arguments were repeated that “Britain is stronger in EU” or the “benefits of being in the EU outweigh the costs”–though it didn’t help this was mis-spoken–rested on broad promises of being better for jobs that weren’t self-evident compared to the biblical rhetoric of throwing off the shackles that bound the nation.  Yet with the apparent discounting of facts, and “Remain” appealing to “forecasts, warnings and predictions, in the hope that eventually people would be dissuaded from ‘risking it’,” “Leave” carried the day by a slim margin, as little with comparable traction was presented in a distanced language of data that was the very sort of messaging Leave sought to reject.

The iconography of advertisements for Remain proved somewhat wanting in their appeal to British authority, and the image of Churchill was poorly received appeal to nationalism, and even inspired defacing Sir Winston’s face:


Dont QUite !.jpg

Brits Don't Quit


2.  There seems to be, if only in retrospect, far better data about the demographic to whom “Leave” appealed and its geography, however, that seems now to stare us in the face.  The ‘Party of Leave’ became a self-appointed party of Right Thinkers, mostly on the older side, largely rural, in short the ones you’d be least likely to trust the nation’s future in a globalized world.  Where they live was clear:  in the West Midlands, East Midlands, East England, York, Humber, and North East England, “Leave” won the locally lopsided victories that pushed it over the top.  These regions of Little England initiating divorce proceedings eagerly and a bit blindly to the consequences, located far from the elites or far from the cosmopolitan centers of an integrated diverse England, but reared the head of an older .  (But it must be said that Northern Ireland didn’t really pull its weight, as well as some of the regions–Swansea and Lancaster and Nottingham–where the vote split even.

A territorial OSM mappingmapping of Remain/Leave on a projection by Andrew X. Hill reveals the split, but obscures differences in the distribution and concentration of votes.


Andrew X Hill


Looking at a finer grain distribution than provided by the monocolor language of electoral maps, we can examine with profit the vote’s distribution around London.  For the distribution reveals a bit of a secession from one part of the nation, as much as a secession from the EU, and a secession from the nation tied to globalization:  and if all politics is truly increasingly local, the divides in London show the car-driving commuters of suburbia who see themselves as hived off from the greater city, far from Muslim communities, shown below in cobalt blue rather than red, or indeed more heterogeneous populations.  “Leave” voters live in what are generally older buildings, many of pre-WWII vintage, and are more likely to see themselves as communities cut off from time–they map onto populations less mindful or reliant on shared services of public transportation, more likely to drive to work, and living in more spread out areas, perhaps fearful of mediated images of urban density and diversity.  The correlation between voting Leave and age and race is not only evident, but the divide increasingly clear between geographical enclaves of lower diversity that can be clearly tied to different notions of space, community, and social habitus.  (Much more on mapping urban distributions to come.)  UKIP leader Nigel Farage vaingloriously boasted “that the dawn is breaking on an independent United Kingdom” to cheering crowds, but the Kingdom seems increasingly disunited, and its divisions seem set into stark relief by the Brexit vote.


London Divides



London-No Religion

Muslim London, blue 100%


In a nation where most immigrants and indeed non-Anglican faiths are lopsidedly concentrated in metro areas as London, fears of assimilation and accommodation of refugees and those Middle Eastern or Eastern European migrants seeking work are more filled with dread and more intense in the suburban areas of the extra-urban, as well as in the country-side.  They are far more exaggerated there, and more apt to be wrapped in patriotism:  for while cities as London had adequately absorbed or accommodated immigrants who arrived for work, and held jobs, the specter or illusion of immigration and refugees was just so much stronger in the Midlands, the concentration of votes reveals–


Detailed Brexit Breakdown.pngGuardian interactive map


Hovering over regions just outside urban areas, one can see where “Leave” won and by how much it did outside London, Northern Ireland and Scotland, and those narrow slices where Remain victories concentrated in Manchester, Brighton, Bristol, Liverpool, Reading, Yok and Cambridge.


Brexit Breakdown



One might try to accept the splitting off of the Scots as a cultural artifact, as if an imagined line existed by which Scotland was cut off, as Matthew of Paris mapped “Scocia ultra marina [Scotland-beyond-the-Sea]” as an autarkic island set off not only by Hadrian’s Wall but at a geographical remove linked by but the sole bridge to cross an expanded River Forth:




or, in a modern remapping, where “Alba Republica” is cut off by the Channel of Sanity, as much as the Firth of Hope or River Forth, in the newly Dis-United Kingdom, whose landscape is marked with isolated islands of “free lands” of Brexit-free cities of Liverpool, Newcastle, York, Leeds and Tunbridge Wells and Euro-lands of London, Bristol, Cambridge, and Oxford, in leaving Little (or Lesser) Brexitia:




The bounded islands of Brexit-free cities are shown as so many confessional refuges among greater regions of xenophobia.

Yet the divide over the EU is indeed deeply demographic, if not strictly self-made by a Lesser Brexitia seeking to enlarge the Channel of Separation.


3.  The self-selection of neighborhoods–and this is the subject of this post–be seen in the data on the city of London itself, evident in the patterns of urban growth and housing that define urban areas, as mapped by Oliver O’Brien for the Consumer Data Research Centre using databases of the Valuation Office Agency.  Indeed, if one might parse the division on the EU vote, as did Politico, in a clever infographic, by clearcut lines of age–




–what seems a generational divide might be as easily parsed around ties to globalization rather as age cohorts or generational gaps.  To do so, one must scratch deeper under the surface of population maps, and do so with a clear-minded attention to what possible ties between the vote and questions of social insularity, public transit use, and the dramatically different degrees of exposure to social diversity exposes how the vote divided on other sharply drawn lines.  For the hatred of globalization that spurred Brexit’s popularity in the midlands, in the northeast as well as for much of England’s older generations lay in a hiving off from the diversity of metropolitan areas.

The demographic divide in greater metropolitan areas are all too evident in London alone.  When we read such a regular map of urban settlement, we might a map, we usually want to find buildings’ orientation and adjacency–rather than, say, the dates of their construction.  For all its architectural riches and classy neighborhoods.  Yet the possibilities of a web map of urban settlement and expansion, as is far more evident on the CDRC website.   London still stands out as a study in contrasts of architectural styles.  But a recent mapping of the organization of residences of different dates presents a clear-cut sort of color-coded x-ray of its urban growth–although the absence of commercial buildings from the tally may skew its patterning in a neatly nested progression–reveals a clear ring of growth during the 1930s and 1940s around the metropolis, where the suburbs that voted “Leave” live largely in older buildings, removed from the dynamic heterogeneity of the city center, if many work in new buildings that crowd the Thames:


London Growth.png

CDRC/Oliver O’Brien
modal building age legend


O’Brien’s interactive layered visualization for the CDRC’s used data from the Valuation Office Association on the age of residential house clusterings to reveal the palimpsest of post-war urban growth that redefined London as a metropole by 1964.   The visualization offers a fascinating sort of the construction of cities that one might imagine as the next frontier of GoogleMaps–why not?–if there was any monetization of such information.  For it allows one to scan neighborhoods for the construction dates of all residences in urban neighborhoods, as if to realize their construction in a period of explosive growth.  It also reveals the clear constraint on the city’s urban space in the expansion of its so-called Green Belt in the 1940s, when a rash of building residences (light blue) around the darker blue residences built after the turn of the century created a belt on its urban expansion.

And the consequences that CDRC has revealed for the transportation choices that reveal patterns of urban mobility in London–and reveal how many are increasingly apparent in the reliance of most who live in a slightly different ring of light blue, far broader, whose inhabitants rely largely on individual car transport, rather than public transit networks.  While due to the absence of Underground stations in several boroughs, no doubt, where the reliance on cars or vans for most work in the ring of light blue is a primary register of their sense of space–and also a question of a calculus of distance and above-ground traffic congestion.  The color scheme deserves to be examined in detail in interactive form.




The “Top Method of Travel to Work” map shows a wide use of rail from some outlying areas, but a clear limitation on the public transit lines, although those areas within the M25 for which there is no data is significant, and an unfortunately still very spotty reach of public transit to urban peripheries.


van:no data.png


The other side of the story is the concentration of new buildings–since 1945; post-war–along the crowded downtown region and River Thames that have so changed the local profile of the city to make it the perfect soundstage for the most recent James Bond film, Spectre, but to totally change its skyline in ways destined to be a  shock to tourists, who sense the desire to be modern making the mismatch of most buildings.  The tour from Charing Cross to Westminster could have been previously imagined, as well as GCHQ.  One can imagine a cool time-sensitive slider bar!)


London post-1945 buildings.png


The concentration of recently built buildings suggest the rates of central London in a burgeoning real estate market, probably nourished by advertisements that businesses could once enjoy bases in London in easy communication with the European Union’s market, and which has so far resisted a downturn from fear of Brexit:


along Thames


While buildings are able to be seen in an aggregate of dates of construction, the inhabitants are less easily abstracted open data.  But the constitution of neighborhoods are obliquely revealed in data and in surprising ways, and it would be interesting to see how they intersect–and how the buildings of clusters of residences are reflected in other topographies of urban residents.

Religious conviction remains the ultimate private matter–and one of the earliest forms of data tied to individual privacy.  The aggregate maps of religious affiliations now available on Datashine from the 2011 census however provide particular maps of the distribution of religious faith in contemporary England that also illuminate the Brexit divides.  If such maps once might have been treated as sites to target religious self-identification by dictators, inquisitors or governments, the location of the faith to which folks affiliate is a surprisingly available case of open data that, while not violating questions of individual privacy, are the sort of distributions over which historians of the early modern period would either painstakingly work to reconstruct in approximate forms, or dream to be able to visualize.  Of course, this reflects an era when religious affiliation is not a personally held matter, or matter of conscious, so much as a public self-identification–something which qualitatively changes the data’s texture and flavor–as well as its depth of meaning.

Of course, confession is less–for now–of a topic of civil dispute in western societies, although recent events have suggested this might not always be the case and such information would be far more privileged in, say, Syria or Iraq.  But we can easily access the block-by-block distribution of how the faithful or agnostics declare their affiliation in Britain, zooming into specific regions that seem potentially terrifying when viewed through the eyes of potential antagonists, even despite the lack of identifying individuals who declared their attitudes to religious belonging.  To take a randomized example, for example and for points of comparison, one can look at a smaller city in England, as Cardiff, in Whales, to map relative concentrations of those reporting their religious affiliation as belonging to the Christian faith, albeit without a quantification of degrees of conviction or of the spatial spread of practices of church-going:


Cardiff's Christianity



If few Christians concentrate in downtown Cardiff, seem to congregate in central Cardiff, filled with atheists, muslims, or Jews, Christians concentrate in the outlying suburban neighborhoods.

To be sure, it’s to be expected that there be some particularly dense concentrations of Muslims, for example, around London and surrounding areas, where denser regions of concentration are noted by cobalt blue, often above the Thames:


Muslim London, blue 100%


Similarly, there are established neighborhoods, if the data of the census is to be believed, peopled by Jews, and many areas where they are absent:


Jewish in London--Blue high %


In sharp contrast, the mosaic of faiths in London, for example, where “Christians” seem settled in pocked of central London, mostly South of the Thames, if concentrated in specific neighborhoods–Newham, Kensington, Richmond upon Thames, Southmark–but absent from Tower Hamlets.


christianity and pockets of atheists in London


Christian religiosity surely seems to run the Thames river from Richmond to Bexley in an improbable way:


Religion runs the Thames-  Ealing to Bexley


The prouder concentration of religious Christians in central London is high, but particularly concentrated by neighborhood or enclave.


London--Data Shine %22No Religion%22 25.4% average



As is the concentration–and this is more predictable to a degree–of those residents not self-identifying as Catholics.  Of more interest, perhaps, is how those Londoners claiming, which averages 25.4% in the city as a whole, are particularly concentrated in pockets as well.


London-No Religion


Can one say that neighborhoods of clearer Christianity tend to cling to the banks of the Thames due to high real estate and perhaps considerable disposable funds?


Christianity clings to the Thames


What this means is harder to say, but the idea that the like-minded congregate is tempting–and it would be neat, if more invasive, to map against a topography of houses of worship, if one zooms in at a finer grain to scrutinize the distribution in a block-by-block resolution, finding the density of what one assumes are church-going neighborhoods in Bexley, Chelsea or Wandsworth.


Religion fits neighborhods--Kensignton to Bexley


There seems something oddly echoing the notion of Reformers’ hopes for a close pastoral community in these centers of urban Christianity.  But it can’t help but feeling as if one is snooping as one zooms in from the broader view of the city to such a clear resolution.


London and Religion-  Christianity



The view from afar is, as usual, less helpful.  In the aggregate, London seems to be a den of iniquity where “no religion” dominates the scene.  But this hardly lines up with the way the city divided into sectors with the Brexit vote.


London-Red No Religion


June 28, 2016 · 11:26 pm

Our Increasingly Overlit Night Skies

A recent global synthetic atlas showing the degree to which artificial light has compromised the night-time sky globally over the fifteen years since the extent of light pollution’s impact on the night-time sky.   If the stars provided a basis to organize time, space, and prognostication, as well as natural guideposts for maritime navigation, their increased disappearance from human perception is made terrifyingly clear in the first-ever light pollution atlas, which reveals the alarming increase in the diffusion of electric light during the night across a good deal of the northern hemisphere–and an alarming rare of the growth of nocturnal illumination that warrants concern at the extent of global brightening and its effects not only on the visibility of starlight, but an increased remove of dark skies that will no doubt impact animal life.

If cartographers long measured place against the stars–navigation long determined by the north star–artificial lights obstruct an increasing share of the starry night-time sky in ways that suggest a disorientation from astronomical points of reference–as light pollution causes a deep disturbance of the ecosystems of nocturnal animals and migrating birds.  The atlas of artificial sky brightness provides an image of the costs of globalization we are not likely to forget–tracing the atmospheric effects of what we now consider human habitation and its costs.  For although the over-illumination of much of the inhabited world has brought an artificial brightening of the night-time sky has only begun to be a subject of environmental study, the global mapping of the intensity of upward emissions across the globe will soon change that provides an astounding synthesis of  the new nature of the night-time sky–now mapped for the first time in totality by the and the database of the Sky Quality Meter using infra-red sensing to create cloud-free images of the local distribution of light pollution.

The synthetic maps of incredible clarity in the atlas synthesize some tens of thousands of high-resolution satellite images chart how the night sky is seen cross the world, measuring the degradation of celestial light in ways that have rarely been so comprehensively assessed.  It maps not only the expanse of light pollution, or the extent of night-time illumination, but the increased brightening of nocturnal skies.  The augmentation of light at night has come to grow at a rate of six percent each year in most of Europe and the United States that seem to take us further from the stars.  The diminished visibility of the constellations from human sight from light pollution may offer a metaphor for global disorientation, or time-space bearings, with the increased  global surplus of artificial light and the diffusion of an ever-present artificial skyglow on the horizon of most of the inhabited world.  If stars provided a primordial site of contact with bearings–indeed the graticule by which Claudius Ptolemy imagined the ability to order spatial relations was astronomically derived–widely occurring afterglow from cities, highways, factories, airports, and suburbia not only create a diminished opportunity for star-gazing but a potentially disorienting disappearance of the Milky Way.


Never see the milky way.pngInternational Dark Sky Association


It is especially poignant that in an era of brightening skies, druids gather in the circle of Stonehenge’s sarsen stones to witness the spectacle of midsummer sunrise through the frames of longstanding massive ancient trilithons to celebrate the summer solstice.  The annual gatherings mark the closest approach of the sun to the planet, and greet the arrival of the longest day in the northern hemisphere in a world.  Yet in a region where night sky is increasingly less clearly differentiated from day, the observation of celestial lights on  Salisbury Plane are likely to be marred by the ever-present glow of electric lights.  And the increasing illumination of night-time skies have definitively altered how most Europeans will perceive the stars, and compromised the visibility of starlight to the naked eye across most of Europe and the inhabited world–especially in landlocked urban environments which are transformed to expansive islands of light that diffuse across the countryside, increasingly evident in satellite photography.




The interactive maps compiled from satellite images released this summer reveal the extent of global brightening in ways that suggest a massive scale of environmental change only begun to be assessed.  The maps chart the darkest districts of England are the Isles of Scilly, West Devon and Eden in Cumbria, most of England’s more populated territory suggest the particularly invasive nature of light pollution, and its difficulty to be clearly mapped–and the increasing diffusion of electric light into once-rural areas have created an unclear divide in which just over a fifth of England is not affected by the increased illumination of night-time streets.



Light:D legend

England’s Light Pollution and Dark Skies/© Natural England 2016. © Crown/ database right 2016 Earth Observation Group, NOAA National Geophysical Data Center.  Developed by LUC


The pronounced concentration of diffracted light emanating from electric lights in London remains striking for the diffusion that extends into the roads that ring the city–


London Light.pngEngland’s Light Pollution and Night Skies


–but the situation is symptomatic of the broader impact of electric light worldwide, which suggests that night time skies have been degraded across all of land-based Europe, and that the observation of stars in night-time skies only remain pristine at sea.


visual-impacts1.jpgFalchi et al. (2016)


Much as friends in San Francisco and Oakland now travel to the Eastern Sierras to witness the visibility of celestial light, and others based in Paris travel to islands in Croatia where they can take pleasure in the diminished radiant light that mars most astronomical observation closer to home, attempts to escape from the global brightening caused by the scattering of artificial light around urban environments compromise celestial visibility worldwide.   The increased pleasure of enjoying night skies leads to even some rapturous encounters with the revelation of a sky full of celestial lights, noticed by ecopsychology, suggests that noticing the signs of the night sky not only be an orienting need for animals, but individual well-being that the ubiquity of afterglow threatens to erode.  Yet the increased acceptance of LED lighting which scatters more widely through the atmosphere and creating  more intense skyglow than older technologies of long wavelength light.

The question is not only one of individual health, but historical preservation.  Recent calls for the “tasteful illumination” of the neolithic monument to kindle interest in the monument back in 2011 in hopes to “add some magic” to its ruins would have only returned the monument to artificial illumination it enjoyed in the 1970s and 80s, stopped only to reduce accidents on the nearby A303.  But the floating of the proposal rightly led some to caution that preserving Stonehenge in “its landscape and part and parcel of that is restoring Stonehenge to its sky, to keeping it as dark as possible”–albeit near the A303.




If the spread of night-time lights or skyglow across the ecumene offers a skewed way to map populations, expanding nocturnal illumination in the northern hemisphere may make the Salisbury skies far less of a privileged place to wait for the arrival of the solstice sun.  Although NASA’s satellite composite image of nocturnal illumination presents a picture of the regions most prominently effected, the effects of the compromising of the visibility of starlight to the naked eye is only beginning to be mapped as an environmental change of considerable consequence–


Visible Earth NASANASA’s Visible Earth Project


–and demand to be mapped in England in further detail.  While Milton celebrated how God “made the stars,/ And set them in the firmament of heaven/To illuminate the earth, . . . / . . . and rule the night, / And light from darkness to divide,” the division between light and dark has become increasingly blurred, as stars are rendered less visible by over-illumination, and the surrounding dark less “ever-during” and darkness is far less visible than it ever was, especially near the light-domes created by extended urban and extra-urban areas.


Britain at Night.png



As of 2010, the deterioration of light pollution to the naked eye grew in much of the UK:


Naked Eye Light Polution.pngLight Pollution to Naked Eye (2010)


The broadly documented phenomenon of ‘global brightening’ is concentrated in the most densely inhabited areas of the world, and correlates to economic production, as it concentrates in the northern hemisphere–as is shown in a recent interactive online map that reveals the extent of those areas of stellar visibility are compromised night-time skies, whose majesty are only visible in areas removed from illumination from diffused artificial light.  Indeed, global brightening and light pollution have come to exercise such strong visual impact on the night-time skies of much of the more densely urban areas that the Milky Way cannot actually be seen due to the reduction of night-time stellar visibility–here able to be contrasted with the Visible Earth project of electric light emissions.


Visible Earth NASA

mondo_ridotto0p25Istituto di Scienza e Tecnologia dell’Inquinamento Luminoso

scale bar SQM


The mapping of such atmospheric light pollution suggests the growing problem of the degradation of night-time skies on account of the increased illumination polluting night-time skies that has almost obliterated the pristine skies across Europe, with the Milky Way obliterated for much of England, from London to the north, Paris, the Netherlands, and northern Italy:  indeed, the introduction of LED lighting in the north has further compromised what was once called the “natural sky,” giving rise to personalized mapping of the artificial illumination of night-sky brightness by the The Dark Sky Meter app for iPhones, as “Myskyatnight” provides a tool making available night-sky brightness to all–and the creation of select “Dark Sky Parks” across the United States within national parks, to create preserves for night-sky visibility across the western states like Sedona, Arizona, the Colorado Plateau near Moab, Utah or the Grand Canyon–all joining  Dark Sky Places with sponsorship from the International Dark Sky Association based in Tuscon, Arizona.

The compromising nature of “Light Limiting Magnitude” is still painstakingly compiled, as of 2016, locally measuring the limiting magnitude of observation by the naked eye–the faintest star seen by unaided human sight, a rough guide to judging the degradation of night-time skies.


Light Limiting Magnitude.png


But the questions of different perceptions of the sky and the concentration of the diffusion of light pollution can better register the pervasiveness of night-time afterglow.




Indeed, most children in the United States aren’t familiar with the extent of celestial illumination of night-time skies, and indeed much of the night time skies are compromised in much of the northern hemisphere–


IMpact on Night Skies World Wide


–and the skies of Britain are filled with afterglow–


Britain at NightNASA-Earth at Night


And even if the monument of Stonehenge is not yet protected as a community adopting low levels of light pollution by the International Dark Sky Association, the Salisbury plane is filled with afterglow from artificial illumination of spreading rural suburbia–


Salisbury].pngNaked Eye Light Pollution



–if the extent of nocturnal illumination of the skies considerably varies across England, the nation which has sthe largest areas of dark sky in Europe, evident in the striking diffusion of night-time light between Manchester and Sheffield.


Manchester and Sheffield.pngNaked Eye Light Pollution


The neolithic monument is not yet truly so starkly illuminated as a faked photograph that recently made rounds on Twitter might suggest, making its illumination more absurd.




Despite the brightening of night-time skies of southern England, celestial observation was long commemorated in the ancient structure of Stonehenge, where the alignment of the world with astronomical skies took advantage of the plateaux of the Salisbury Plain.  The crowding of the inner circle of blue stones, erected between 2400 and 2200 BC, are bound off from visitors save the modern groups of druids, if summer solstice has encouraged pagan pilgrimages to the 4,500 year old circle of sarsen stone circle in hopes to partake in collective re-enactments of druidical rites of primordial worship of the arrival of the midsummer sun at sunrise, watching the sun rise at the closest point to earth’s northern hemisphere.


Stonehenge solstice


So heightened is the demand for attaining ecstatic existences of the many druidical groups in the United Kingdom’s English Heritage has booked visits within the sarsen stones over several of the weeks following the actual summer solstice, so as to accommodate their re-enchanting of the wonder of the rhythms of renewal of celestial light at a time when the afterglow of artificial light has obscured the stars in night-time skies for the majority of the world’s populations.


Western Europe light pollution.pngFalchi et al. (2016)


The recent compilation data of accurate measurements of human-generated light from “Sky Quality Meters” in some 20, 865 locations has led to a more exact measurement of current levels of light pollution in a newly comprehensive atlas of the world, and indeed a forecast of the increased compromise after the transition to LED lights in Europe.


V-Band:LED projection forecast.jpg


For among the growing list of anthropogenic changes recently mapped, nothing can capture disenchantment so much as the artificial illumination of the night-time sky in a globalized world–even as an expanding amount of artificial illumination has changed our perceptual relation to the night-time world, and a consequent reduction of apparent celestial light.  The global spread of access to artificial night-time illumination has so expanded the extent of the diffraction of light to create an almost omnipresent afterglow of the night-time sky to compromise dark-adapted abilities of vision as well as stellar visibility.  Not only has the explosion of light pollution across much of the inhabited world compromised and obscured night vision of stars across much of the inhabited world for one third of the planet’s residents, but the rapid increase in artificial light in much of the night sky–now measured as growing at a rate of 5-10% each year–threaten to obscure in due time the notion of stellar visibility, sufficient to provoke the neurological correlative of disenchantment from stellar visibility in the night sky.  The obscuring of night sky that is projected to be caused by the unnecessary addition of nocturnal illumination by LED lights is projected to increase the scattering of atmospheric light to produce such an extreme artificial brightness in much of the night-time sky over future decades was projected, if keeping at the conservative current rate of growth of light levels of 6% per year, that few or no Americans will be able to perceive the stars of the Milky Way.






The increased compromising of activities as star-gazing offers and instance of the ever-increasing disenchantment of our perception of the environment, as artificial illumination increasingly erodes the possibility of being alone in relation to the night-time world.


falchi1HR-milky-way-over-park.jpgMilky Way Seen on Utah-Colorado Border in Dinosaur National Monument/Dan Duriscoe


Nikolay Doychinov:Angence France Presse--Getty Images.pngNicolay Doichinov/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images


For this reason, the interest of the ability to map the extent of nocturnal illumination across most of the inhabited world–and especially across its most densely inhabited centers of habitation–has grown as a needed assessment of the state of stellar visibility.

For if most are not so much enslaved in a Weberian “iron cage” to bureaucratic systems of efficiency, calculation and control than they feel removed from experience, many do find the experience of night-time and night-vision increasingly compromised by the insistent or incessant visibility of much of the globe, where night-time glow obscures constellations for over three-quarters of the United Kingdom, even as Stonehenge is privileged as a site of druidical celebrations.  If witnessing the summer solstice sunrise is a centering annual rite for many, the increasingly compromised visibility of night-time stars suggests an unpredicted but disorienting effect of over-inhabitation, where the near-constant illumination of population centers creates an anthropogenic effects of not fully understood consequences, as well as obscuring the visibility of starry skies now only able to be glimpsed in remote areas, removed from the intense afterglow of urban lights, and revealing the extent of the natural illumination of the night-time sky.


meteor-Eta-Aquarid-5-6-2016-darla-Young-Carthage-AR1-e1466811727327-1.jpgDarla Young, Peak of Eta Aquaria Meteor Shower (May 2016)/EarthSky


For if the spirituality of witnessing the solstice sunrise exits as an independent event, as if to recognize its continued existence independent of human agency and as following in the paths of the ancient meaning of the stones’ placement in a circle of monumental frames, imposes a continued meaning on observers, as if “bringing us as it were into its field of force” in Charles Taylor’s words, over-illumination reveals an anthropocentric belief in our access to night-time spaces and a control of space that reduce any sense of a world separate from human agency, even while mapping the extent of global over-inhabitation–and, as Ben Henning showed in a gridded cartograms in the over-illumination of the world’s most densely inhabited areas.  And while we consider globalization as having a distinct set of “winners” and “losers,” the mapping of the effects of the increase in artificial illumination that is already visible in the night sky is most  evident in the increased obstruction of stellar visibility over the most developed areas of the world.


Earth at Night--NASA photo and equal-pop projection


The “devastating senselessness” that Max Weber feared and predicted has a basis for disenchantment has progressed in different directions in the increasing departure of much of the globalized world from access to night skies, and the contraction of areas of continued visibility of night-time skies, meteor showers or constellations.  Increasingly,  many websites urge driving to find “darker skies” away from the glow of city lights to recuperate an increasingly threatened sense of contact act with witnessing the stars, setting out in search for spatially relocating oneself to have contact with the arrival of Perseid meteors or to view Leonids, in secluded spots where the glow of car headlights or nocturnal illumination of highways and city streets won’t compromise night vision in an increasingly personalized age, to seek a sort of spiritual purity in star-gazing.

And so, back to Stonehenge.  The Dutch medievalist Johann Huizinga shrewdly observed “The modern city hardly knows true silence or true darkness any more, nor does it know the effect of single small light or distant shout” in The Waning of the Middle Ages (1919).  Even if electric lights were once confined to cities and urban areas, the presence of light is now also invading the skies of rural areas in the diffracted luminescent of night-time glow. Indeed, the performance of sacred rites of the celebration of solar observation at Stonehenge recoups a re-enchanted world rooted in the wonder of solstice, and engage in the ecstatic sense of observing the sun rising though placed stones.  The promise of a return to ancestral rhythms of witnessing the renewal of dawn is a means of restoring alignment to cosmic rhythms, particularly apt as observing stellar light is increasingly inaccessible to most of the world’s populations.  Ye the re-enchantment of Stonehenge, by no means the only circle of ancient stones but perhaps the most romanticized, has even as the overlit presence of man-made night has radically altered the global skies–the celebration of solstice runs against the growing skyglow in night skies, and re-evaluate the future of any un0bstructed points of access to “natural” levels of celestial light–already raising fears that led former  to “illuminate” the stones would have only further distanced observers from the celestial calendars that Stonehenge was designed to mark.





The mythical power of Stonehenge derives from the very nature of unknown reasons for its construction, which have long lead it to be tied to a sense of mystically recuperating cosmic harmony through the ancient even arrangement of its stones, long assumed to offer a neolithic astronomical observatory, if not a basis for computing the calendar.


Stonehenge solstice sunset Pete Glastonbury, 2008Stonehenge Summer Solstice Sunset, Pete Glastonbury (2008)


The rudimentary astronomical observatory  on the plateau of Salisbury plain, has a historical aura of harmony with celestial spheres, but may increasingly serve as a nostalgic reminder of an  era when rhythms of time were divided by the clear distinction between night-time sky and sunrise, and has become something of a shrine and site of pilgrimage for pagans seeking to get in touch with astrological rhythms that are increasingly distanced from human sight in a world where stellar visibility is increasingly reduced by artificial light luminance–and contact with sources of celestial light compromised.



stellar stSummer Solstice at Night in Stonehenge (2010)/Gabriel Stargardter


The shared awe in observing the sun rise through the stones defines a site of renewal increasingly in demand in a disenchanted world.  But although the earth is most continuously illuminated by the sun’s rays in midsummer, increased presence of night-time glow across the northern hemisphere has so subtracted stellar visibility to compromise the darkness of night skies, including in the UK.  It may be time to ask whether the mystery of the encounter with dawn at Stonehenge this summer solstice may be hampered by the subtraction of starlight from across the night-time sky–dampening the shared awe of watching the illusion of the first light of dawn expanding through the sarsen stones, as the sun rises from the easternmost point of the horizon.


Stonehenge sunrise.pngEddie Mullholland/The Telegraph


stonehenge solstice bwThe Telegraph–Summer Solstice at Stonehenge 2015


The ceremony of witnessing the surprise at the monumental structure of lintened stones has regained a sense of sacrality–if not pop spectacle–but may acquire a more wistful flavor as starlight is less visible from the ground.  In an era when artificial light pollution is so widely diffused across the northern hemisphere, even the “place” of Stonehenge is in a sense stripped of its sense of specificity, with the increased obscuring of star from the night-time sky.  Diminishing stellar visibility stands to change stargazing forever for most of England.  While ecstatic revelry among witness seeks to restore ancestral ties in the circular placement of trilithons that appear to echo a cosmic order, diminishing starlight and night-time in much of England may change that rather drastically.


Temporarily used for contact details: The Engine House, Fire Fly Avenue, Swindon, SN2 2EH, United Kingdom, Tel: 01793 414600, Email:, Website: Heritage


The meaning longest day may seem divested of symbolic meaning in an era when night-time light pollution threatens to defamiliarize much of England with the stars–and much of Europe as the glow of electrical lighting has begun to mask a greater amount of the Milky Way.  With increasing stars removed from the night-time skies, obscured by artificial sky glow that removes the constellations from 77% of the inhabitants of the United Kingdom, especially in many cities, and reducing areas to view the night sky’s stars–as has been revealed in a new global atlas of night-time levels of illumination by sources of artificial man-made light, a striking atlas of the effects of human habitation.  The fading of constellations by artificial airglow is perhaps a cartographical metaphor for modern alienation–a sense of alienation which stands to increase as sodium lights are replaced with cool white LED lights, obscuring even a greater share of stars from the night-time sky with the diffusion of light pollution–as has been mapped increasing obstruction artificial light so intense to obscure night-time illumination by celestial light.



above natural light


Even if the site  of Stonehenge may continued to be treasured as a privileged site of astronomical observation, witnessing the sun’s rise each midsummer through the stones of the sarsen circle has occurred for over 4,000 years, the stones placed on an axis lining up with sunrise on the the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere.  The sarsen circles has long led it to be a site of celestial measurement or ancient astronomy, but the congregation to its site may gain new symbolic relevance in a world increasingly illuminated by artificial light–an overfit world, where the viewing of celestial lights, and even the light of the milky way, has rapidly reduced as increasing artificial brightening has redefined the visibility of the night-time sky and the observation of sunrise, and artificial sky brightness seriously compromises stellar visibility for the most inhabited parts of the world–encouraging the growth of protectionist outfits like the International Dark Sky Association to call attention to those sites that still have low levels of light pollution by online toolslisting those communities that adopt ordinances for low-luminecense places,  including Flagstaff AZ, Borrego Springs CA, and the Isle of Sark and Isle of Coll in the UK–but not Salisbury, despite its relative lack of urban development.




Diminished visibility of constellations to the naked eye may offer a metaphor for collective disorientation from celestial skies–or a sense that the stars are no longer clearly aligned.




Even as crowds of 20,000 gather to mark the rising of the sun through the rock circle, the sky will not only be much less darker when the sun rises but the stars less clearly visible:  the need to see such purified solar light may have grown with abundant artificial light pollution across so much of the over-developed world, where the absence of the dark night sky extends over an increasing area of the world than previously thought possible.

Indeed, although the Ministry of Defense plans to build new modular homes for troops returning from Germany on the Salisbury plain that will actually obscure the Stonehenge sunrise on the horizon near Stonehenge by 2020, will the spectacle of sunrise be as dramatic after the night sky is artificially lightened by the widespread adoption of LED lighting?



0006bc60-642NASA-Earth at Night


Witnessing dawn at Stonehenge may continue to awe, but the presence of dark skies is now foreign to much of the world.  The extensive spread of artificial illumination across so many inhabited areas of the world have been documented a ground-breaking global atlas of light pollution, synthesizing a holistic record of the diffusion of light across the continents, that has been created from tens of thousands of high-resolution infra-red images of nighttime lights across the continents.  The images in the atlas offer the first chance to survey and assess an increasingly constant illumination of the night-time sky–in which the prevalence of widespread artificial light stands to diminish the impact of sunrise, if not the arrival of the longest day of summer.  Indeed, the dispersed intensity of artificial illumination has increasingly degraded the visibility of the night-time sky evident in mapping of the extent by which artificial night-sky brightness obscures the visibility of the stars.


artificial sky brightness

scale bar SQM

Artificial Night-Sky Brightness


IMpact on Night Skies World Wide.jpg


Nocturnal illumination has become so ubiquitous across the inhabited world that it is almost a proxy for inhabitation, the solstice may mark far less noticeable change, so removed is “natural” illumination of celestial sources from the experience of most.   The atlas is the most recent in the accumulation of convincing evidence–as if it was needed–of the arrival of the anthropocene.  It represents the culmination of the attempts of Fabio Falchi to chart the extent of light pollution in the night-time sky, refined many times since he used similar tools to create the dataset of first-ever light pollution atlas in 2001 using a Air Force satellite–and Falchi and his collaborators would be the first to note that since then, nocturnal illumination has increased some 6% each year in Europe and the United States, in ways that now make it hard to understand what “natural” might be, and even harder to imagine experiencing how a night sky without light pollution would appear.

The publication of the atlas is something of an actual wake-up call:  for it has synthesized for the first time the extent artificial night-time light pollution across the globe is not only an image of light sources, but of upward emissions of light from more densely inhabited areas that are diffused through the environment, and often refracted by the atmosphere riche with aerosols.  The data maps document a world defined by almost ubiquitous light pollution that is concentrated in the northern hemisphere, but the massive synthesis of the light emitted across the world reveals multiple magnitudes beyond the “natural” starry sky.  Whereas “natural” lighting was once confined to celestial sources, the growing ubiquity of night-time luminescence has created artificial airglow altering the experience of the dark night-time sky.  The atlas even allows one to calculate distances necessary to travel to perceive a night-time sky that is free from artificial brightness–and to observe how much areas free from artificially generated night-time illumination have actually shrunk for many of the world’s inhabitants in much of the northern hemisphere, and in which Antarctica is the only continent not afflicted by the pollution of artificially generated light.  The new distribution of light intensity whose visible impact –the most visible footprint of over-modernization–suggests a massive environmental change whose consequences are only beginning to be understood.


IMpact on Night Skies World Wide.jpgRoyal Astronomical Society

visual impacts



The spectacular synthesis of high-resolution infra-red data allows an opportunity to assess the environmental alterations created by night-time light as never before.  The calculation of Sky Quality Measurement along a Lambert projection reveals how electric light travels hundreds of miles far from its sources, damaging night-time skies across much of the globe.  Despite its very pervasiveness as a global problem–and one that has advanced so rapidly–the geographical extent of changes in night-time luminance has been rarely perceived or adequately synthesized, until the calibration of “artificial illuminance” offers tools to map the presence of light in the night-time skies in high-resolution form.  The synthesis of data from across the world by infrared imaging offer a better sense of the extent of the ubiquity of the degradation of night-times skies by using a Visible Infrared Radiometer Suite to calculate the relative brightness of previously dark skies, suggesting a world that increasingly glows with frightening intensity, where the illumination only by celestial bodies only exists at sea.  Digital cartography remotely measured by satellite telemetry meets environmental history to raise provoking questions of just how far we have moved form a world where night time was confined to celestial illumination.  Whereas stars might have offered bearing, as they long did, to global location.  Has the ubiquity of geolocation arrived at time when we have lost the ability, as well as the need, to easily calculate global position by celestial observation of the stars?

The concentration of regions of light pollution in Europe, where the intensity of night-time illumination is often ten times above the “natural” levels of celestial illumination from the moon and stars–


Light-Polution-Map-Europe-GeoawesomenessRoyal Astronomical Society

above natural light


–and is only rivaled by the eastern seaboard of North America and eastern half of the United States.  Indeed, in erasing the dominance of celestial sources of illumination, night-time vision has been degraded for much of the global population with consequences we have rarely considered, with the result that events such as the summer solstice are far less clearly defined parts of our calendar.  Whereas Milton once expressed awe at the creation of stars “set . . . in the firmament of heaven/To illuminate the earth,” and “sowed with stars the heaven thick as a field” of light, “Their small peculiar, though from human sight/So far remote, with diminution seen,” the erasure of stars from much of the night-time sky suggest a degree of alienation from one’s environment.  The inundation of the night-time atmosphere with artificial light around the Nile delta, for example, gives the region a  surreal glow that, while beautiful in its own eery way, registers the rivers’ pollution of a striking the density of electric lights.





The atlas of images that registers the distribution of nighttime illumination based on data from the NOAA–NASA Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite uses new indices of Sky Quality Measurement of the night-time sky, to measure the rapidity and nature of this massive change of our shared experience of the degree to which artificial “skyglow” or luminance has compromised the starriness of the night sky.  Using indices based on a ration between artificial brightness and the “natural” background brightness of the night sky removed from man-made sources of light (174 μcd/m2) provides the best measure yet of the ever-present “horizon glow” generated by cities–which, if once confined to factory towns, has become a characteristic of the night sky.  The recent synthesis  of the presence of night-time light pollution across the globe is not only an image of light sources, but the upward emissions of light from more densely inhabited areas.  Its synthetic images document a world defined by almost ubiquitous light pollution that is concentrated in the northern hemisphere, but the massive synthesis of the light emitted across the world reveals multiple magnitudes beyond the “natural” starry sky.

Across the United States over 40% of whose inhabitants can no longer view the heaves with eyes adapted to night vision, on account of the ever-brighter built surroundings.  While an inability to adapt to night vision is less true for Europeans as a whole (15%), according to the team run by Fabio Falchi, about a third of the world’s inhabitants are no longer able to discern the stars of the Milky Way across the nighttime sky, obscuring stellar visibility for much of its inhabitants, in a marked impoverishment of perception not limited to overnight camp-outs, increasingly endemic to urbanized areas, where exceeding magnitudes of twenty-fold seems increasingly common.


Artificial Light USA North AmericaRoyal Astronomical Society

above natural light


Unlike an image of the local illumination of space in the United States, as that created by NASA in 2012 of the levels of lighting across the entire earth and the United States–


nocturnal illumination.png


–images in the atlas of artificial light tracked the expansion of light pollution across the world’s surface and in different regions, through a dataset that measured degrees of local environmental degradation, rather than noting local levels of emission of artificial light or the relative intensity of local levels of light.  The result is a clearer sense of how light alters space, and indeed compromises levels of man-made light visible at any place, a far more sensitive record of local environment.


Artificial Light USA North America.jpg


If the dataset is made on the same measurements of local light intensity, the result is to better map the persistent presence of light in an atlas of artificial light’s presence, or “artificial sky luminance,” to measure the propagation of the nighttime landscape.

The overwhelming extent of anthropogenic effects of increasing light pollution have been measured and documented the first atlas of the night sky, compiled from data collected by a U.S. Air Force satellite after some 15 years of study.  The recent atlas registers an amazing rate of increased intensity of light pollution at an annual rate of 6% in North America and Europe.  It found that as much as 83% of the world’s population and more than 99% of the inhabitants of Europe and the United States live under steeply light-polluted skies (with an  artificial sky brightness great than 14 μcd/m2)–as much as 88% of Europe and half of the United States regularly experience skies so compromised by light pollution.  At one extreme, night-time skies in the country of Singapore prevent inhabitants from adapting to night vision and light pollution fully masks the Milky Way.


Light-Polution-Map-Asia-Geoawesomeness.jpgRoyal Astronomical Society


To be sure, sub-saharan Africa is less subject to light pollution, aside from its western coast–but an intensity of light traces the course of the River Nile, and is striking across most of the Middle East, in ways that suggest possibilities of neurophysiological change.


Light-Polution-Map-Africa-Geoawesomeness.jpgRoyal Astronomical Society


The increasing swaths of light pollution in more densely built and inhabited areas–also including Israel, the Netherlands, Kuwait, Malta, Egypt and Qatar–where over or approaching half of their inhabitants have no chance of viewing the Milky Way raises the possibility of inevitable challenges of viewing a clear nocturnal starry sky in much of the globe, or of light uncontaminated by artificial lighting across the world.  Indeed, the reduced of areas of “natural” light save in regions of Africa and the Australian outback maps–in ways comparable to the near-absence of regions of the United States free from man-made sound–the conflation of nature and culture that defines the anthropocene.

Africa indeed folds in upon itself, as much of central South America, in a gridded cartogrammic warping of a Robinson projection of the world as it is illuminated at night, by Benjamin Hennig, based on NASA’s measurements of night-time lights in 2012:  while Hennig has created a warped image of to show the proportional degrees of light in which more inhabited regions of the world live, and the stunning illustration of the inequality in illumination against an equal population projection of the world.


Redistribution of world at night by PopulationBenjamin D. Hennig


Hennig had taken as the basis for his own dataset the earlier 2012 NASA data, which showed an image of earth still largely drenched in dark, if spotted by points of light reaching a huge density in Europe and North America, as well as Japan, yet doesn’t register the effects of light pollution propagation, as light diffuses in the local atmosphere and travels far from its actual source–as Hennig’s map is distribution of light sources over space–and only partly registers “the end of night as you know it,” as the NASA Earth Observatory promised, after gathering night-time data in a continuous image of the earth over 312 orbits made in April and October 2012.


WERH ANT NIGHTNASA Earth Observatory (click to download map views)


Night is more removed today, but the need to celebrate the separate nature of night from day seems central to our perception of the environment, as is our need for ceremonial contact with the sun.  Indeed, the Stonehenge solstice celebrations evoke the ancient past in coming weeks, for all their fictive historical recreation of Uther Pendragon and Merlin, mythically credited with constructing the circle of sarsen stones of Stonehenge–


stonehengesummersolstice2010-druidkingarthurpendragonvintagedepthttpflic.krp8cb6n8.jpg Vintagedept Creative Common


suggest a modern lamentation of the lost world of diminished light, when the fierceness of the solstice pierced through the dark world at dawn, in ways that are increasingly lost to our overlit world, as well as an attempt to evoke the mystery of first contact with sunlight.


stonehengesummersolstice2010-thesunrisesbehindthestonecirclevintagedepthttpflic.krp8caz6f.jpgVintagedept Creative Commons


If the increasing nature of artificial brightness in the sky, registered here in a composite map of night brightness, created in a composite photography from tens of thousands of high-resolution images taken by the NOAA–NASA Suomi National Partnership satellite.  Since the first global image of night-time illumination was devised in the late 1980’s, the quantitative measurement of variations in specific light sources since 1998 from unsaturated data has provided a new nature of measuring “stellar extinction” and indeed capabilities of night vision, by measuring the scattering of light in atmospheric aerosols and the effects of light flux of terrestrial earth-bound sources on the night-time skies–in the name of reducing energy consumption, despite the potential hazard of blue-rich light, some five-times more disruptive to the human sleep cycle than the electric lighting conventionally used in much of the world.


artificial sky brightnessRoyal Astronomical Society


We seem to stand at the verge of increased light pollution, moreover, with the arrival in Europe of high luminesce efficiency LED lighting.  The increasing rate of artificial illumination is not only not poised to end, but the future shift to 4000K CCT LED technology suggests and increasingly illuminated world–one of whose brightest spots happens to be near to where the monument of Stonehenge lies.  The increasing pinks and white-hot areas of huge regions in the north of Europe and England suggest a perpetual ambient illumination that seems destined to erase much of the visibility of the night sky–even if LED lighting reduces energy consumption and the use of fossil fuels, it carries health and environmental risk of blue-rich lighting in public spaces, and its increased carcinogenic risk, as well as for cardiovascular disease, and impaired daytime functioning.


Europe and Conversion to 4000K CT technology LEDFalchi et al. (2016)


Indeed, the different levels of luminance between electric and orange high-pressure sodium lamps in the East are immediately and saliently visible in early photographs of Berlin at night, with the gas lamps of the West evident on the left.


Berlin_ISS_nightInternational Dark Sky Association


Already, the visual impact of the luminance of this expansive artificial illumination of the night is particularly pronounced–degrading the visibility of constellation long known to man in much of Europe, and only offering pristine skies at sea–as well as the Nova Scotia, Scotland, Algeria, the western Sahara or Ukraine.  The significant travel required to arrive at regions where artificial brightness was less than 1% of the natural background, with the Milky Way no longer visible in much of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany, or from urban environments from Boston to Washington, DC.


visual impactsFalchi et al. (2016)


Indeed, the radical transformation o the night-time skies over much of the world suggest the unique nature of sub-Saharan Africa, where Europeans might in the not to future travel to be able to observe constellations crowding the night-time skies.


Sub-Saharan AfricaRoyal Astronomical Society


What this means for the redefinition of place–as much as of the visibility of the night skies–is particularly troubling, as the advancing tide of artificial illumination suggests not only a reduction in stellar visibility the impoverishes our experience of the night-time world, but a change in the experience of nocturnal darkness, as important for humans as for nocturnal animals.




In Italy, found a 2001 study by Falchi, Cinzano and Eldvidge, using the data of the NOAA National Geophysical Data Center, the peninsula was already awash in light, diminishing stellar visibility for some time.


itamini.jpg<0.11 (black), 0.11-0.33 (blue), 0.33-1 (green), 1-3 (yellow), 3-9 (orange), >9

P. Cinzano, F. Falchi (University of Padova), C.D. Elvidge (NOAA Geophysical Data Center-Boulder), Copyright Royal Astronomical Society


The world at night will most probably never be the same, and promote pilgrimages to a reduced number of places in the globe where stargazing is still permitted–now most accessible, if one doesn’t much mind the pitch of waves, on flotillas, or abandoned oil platforms, far at sea–far from an overinhabited continent inundated with artificial light.




While mostly confined to the northern hemisphere in its continuous glare, the image is almost the inverse of where globalization is seen as bringing benefits–and reveals its growing costs to the so-called “winners.”


World at NIGHT.png


Filed under data visualization, disenchantment, environmental geography, environmental history, global brightening, globalization, human geography, light pollution

Drones and the Distributed Geography of “Homeland”

Michel Foucault famously affirmed in 1967 that “the anxiety of our era has fundamentally to do with place,”long before the so-called the “War on Terror” began.  Yet the ongoing war has increased the anxiety of place by undermining its stability, and even challenging our cognitive abilities to map a war increasingly dispersed on several fronts, difficult to disentangle from one another, and technologically enmeshed in ways that remove it from a space/time continuity.   George W. Bush declared in the fall of 2001 that the “Global War on Terror” lacked bounds–promising it would “not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated”–and the proliferation of the fronts on which it is waged over twenty years lack any signs of orientation:  indeed, as the proliferation of sites of terror–and anxieties–have expanded covert attacks on suspected insurgents or terrorists to erode our sense of where the fifteen-year “war” is actually located.  And it still isn’t clear that it is even spatially located in any strict sense of the word, or that the recent issued executive order to follow stricter protocol and develop better technology to reduce the risk of civilian deaths will offer a greater basis to ensure accountability than 2013 guidelines to ensure “near certainty” of the presence of a designated terrorist at the site of a drone strike.

Foucault described anxieties of place before an audience of architects, in reference to prisons and riots, rather than military architecture of anti-insurgent strikes.  But in ways that Foucault could not have foreseen, but which echo Foucault’s concerns of suspending ‘normal’ relationships, the physically removed paces of a “war” have repercussions on how we understand spatial relations and the permanence or inviolability of international boundaries–in ways that seem almost designed to perplex or be cognitively challenging.  For over the last fifteen years, much of the war has been waged remotely, or from a remove of video screens and remotely piloted drones in army bases to kill enemy combatants across the globe, is increasingly based in code, as the electronic geolocation, tracking, surveillance, and targeting of insurgents increasingly guide drone strikes in a remote war.  The ‘placelessness’ of the War on Terror based on drone strikes that results reflects an increasing embroilment in technologies of remote-sensing and triangulation of phone signals, whose focus of data collection mirrors the War on Terror from 2007 to 2013.



Boundless Informant (2007)


boundless-informant-march-2013-heat-mapBoundless Informant (2013)


Indeed, the basis of a war such covert strikes in harvested data suggests a sense of place constructed in code, as much as on a space to which we are cognitively habituated.  The covert war has been far more placeless than previous wars, removed from place and ethically removed from a familiar value system.  Indeed, as the conflict is increasingly located in a virtual place, most of its combat technologically engaged and removed from immediate surroundings, there have arisen pressing questions of the engagement in a war were the likelihood of striking targeted places has also dramatically increased civilian deaths–raising almost epistemic problems of imagining our own place in the continued war.  The lack of context in the very disembodied “Strike or Capture” maps on the screens of drone pilots who target their victims, lacking the content, visual information, or necessary controls to make an informed choices about the targets they are to fire missiles.


Drone Strikes' Targets



Such questions are returned to, and elaborated, in the Showtime drama Homeland, whose broadcasting on 2011 immediately followed the steepest escalation in drone-strikes during the war–and whose seventh season will be broadcast in 2017–by examining the covert involvement of special operations in an increasingly placeless war, and an everywhere war become an “everyware” war, where place is not only tracked by surveillance and reconnaissance but constituted in code, rather than by fixed positions on a map.  The production of space for the war is less implicit in a cognitive map, in other words, than in the data extracted from surveillance and the targets created for drone strikes. As much as being a heterotopia, the capturing of information by satellite relays, wireless networks, and other captabases allows such action as drone strikes to occur in the world without clear human oversight.  The slippage between human oversight and software generated drone strikes–removed from human intelligence–is a recurrent theme of Homeland.  The coded infrastructure of tracking and monitoring suspected networks of terror and insurgents dramatically increase the possibility of increased citizen casualties or deaths because they are removed from human oversight, even while they generate the illusion of human agency on a video screen, as the cross-referencing of several captabases are accessed at a distinct to allow drones’ precision strikes.


Drone Strikes in Pakistan

New York Times


Interestingly, the popular psychological thriller derives from the award-winning Israeli Prisoners of War (2010) about three Israeli soldiers who return to Israel after a captivity of seventeen years in Lebanon, where they were apprehended while they were on a secret mission, and whose release their government has long agitated:  the reintegration of two soldiers into Israeli society is beset by flashbacks, and the discovery that one of their members is remaining in Syria, where he has converted to Islam:  the confused zone which they inhabit after their “homecoming” or “return” when they have unwillingly become symbols of the nation provides a telling pretext to explore the division of the Middle East, as each ie forced to work through their own traumatic captivity by a homeland that wants to see them as victorious heroes, and negotiating their lives around a nationalist division of space.  While the original series questions the lives fashioned by a geography of war, Homeland only starts from a similar premise, focussing on the return of Nicolas Brody from Afghanistan, and his unclear relation to fellow soldiers who had considered him dead and fought with him there, while only CIA agents suspect his secret conversion to Islam and his status as a counter-agent:  yet the geography of Homeland mutates in new ways as the War on Terror is a central means to understand Brody’s preparation as a counter-agent who maintains secret and deep-running allegiance to his former captor, Abu Nazir:  a drone strike killing Nazir’s son was the turning point in Brody’s decision turn against the homeland of the United States, and drone strikes authorized by the CIA provide a crucial opening for agents to understand the secret geography of insurgent networks.  The geography of drones, and the distinct architecture of intelligence gathering in the War on Terror, in other words, offer the basis to translate the Israeli drama into a story where war is dispersed along several parallel fronts.

While the psychological mapping of Prisoners of War turned on their difficulty in adjusting to the firm lines of division in Israeli society, the discovery of layers of entanglement of the United States and Pakistan in the War on Terror suggests a specific questioning of firm lines of opposition over its first five seasons.  The fronts of an extended war on “violent extremism” have mutated during the war in ways that mirror how Foucault described 1967 as an “epoch of simultaneity . . . of juxtaposition, of near and far [and] of the dispersed,” but which seems to have grown and expanded in ways that have challenged our notion of place–almost as radically as the discovery of Ptolemaic geography in Renaissance Europe helped decenter the cosmos from Jerusalem–which occupied the center of a Christocentric world view, and cartographic skills helped Europeans to deplacialize the New World, the War on Terror has grown with new software tools to locate and destroy terror.  If Ptolemaic geography led to an expansion of “places,” the War on Terror has become an “everyware war,” responding to increased anxiety about the ability to control terrorist attacks by constituting places of insurgents and terrorists in a code/space that remains particularly trying to many as a war that exists outside a clear geographic space.

The difficulty of mapping how the “War on Terror” is waged through remotely piloted aerial strikes, often by drones carrying Hellfire missiles, suggests an expansion of a dispersed war, mirrored in the increased likelihood that drones hit civilian targets.  A sense of the complexity of waging a war in code/space was revealed when the President felt compelled both to apologize personally and take “full responsibility for all our counterterrorism operations including the one that inadvertently took the lives of Warren and Giovanni,” after a 2015 drone strike in a remote al Qaeda compound on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border killed both the American contractor Warren Weinstein and an Italian abducted humanitarian aid worker, Giovanni Lo Porto, who had been held captive for two years and at an inknown location.  The apology was unique among the 415 known drone strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and 2015–all remotely piloted targeted assaults, made by Special Operations squadrons remotely tracking suspected terrorists by remotely filmed footage and triangulating cellular phones–the very sort of remote surveillance and targeting of suspected terrorists that has enabled a large part of the War on Terror, removed from human oversight.  The problems of creating a coherent narrative about–or weaving a narrative around–the intelligence-gathering networks that perform such remote strikes has in part been the premise of Homeland during its first four seasons, and made its storyline and plot so compelling as an inside vision of counter-terrorism.


1*zYDWdqAAaoPAG4wVW4h56Q.jpegReaper Drone training in Nevada; Air Force photograph


Foucault had of course referred to how we divide space in prisons and architecture, as well as riots, rather than fronts of war or military architecture.  But the shifting architecture of the “War on Terror” increasingly removes how we construct place since from a continuum in disorienting fashion and challenges us to grasp relations of space, as is reflected in the paranoid or alarmist narratives of the Showtime thriller Homeland.  In keeping with dramatically increased anxieties of place over the last fifteen years, and the multiplication of anxieties of the proximity of the violence that may erupt anywhere, and is need of constant surveillance, the un-uniform space of terror is matched by claims for the precision by which drones to target, strike, and destroy any place based on aerial mapping, attempting to monitor all possible places and sources of suspected terrorist activity.  The attempt to map terrorist sites have radically changed how we experience the world–with the result of effectively and dramatically undermining the stability of place.


1. The problems of mapping the “War on Terror” are multiple and many.  But the anxieties about organizing its distribution, and managing its appearance in space, range from airport security to combat strikes to arms trafficking, monitoring or surveilling communications to attacking targets deemed dangerous to citizens.  The location of terrorist networks have stubbornly resisted being mapped over the last twelve years, as has the narrative coherence of our relation to a war no longer waged on battlefields, and a massive expansion of remote intelligence units since have allowed drones to account for half of all air force planes, in a mad attempt to surveil and monitor all terrorist activities and locations so that they can be remotely attacked.  Even as the growth of assassinations by drone have grown, al Qaeda presence in many of the regions we attack by drone has grown since Special Operations counterterrorism forces arrived in 2002.  The emergence of calls on social networking sites by “keyboard jihadists” to commit terror accompanied with professions of allegiance to ISIS on social media platforms from Twitter to Facebook have removed terrorist violence from spatial geography or bearings–even as they may raise questions of First Amendment rights.  But even with the increasing unlikelihood that space is  a meaningful register to understand the War on Terror, we perceive it in terms of the disturbing challenges its poses to the security of our sense of space–and pursue its collection in an attempt to monitor and analyze terrorist activity, even in hostile territory.

The psychological thriller Homeland on Showtime plays on fears of a shifting geography of terror to considerable dramatic effect since it has premiered in October, 2011, ten years into the “War on Terror.”  A central premise of the psychological thriller is the prevalence of sleeper cells and terrorist networks in the United States, perhaps tied to mosques and imams, in a shadow network that is uncovered and traced by CIA operations officers for nationwide viewers, with close ties to Iran and al Qaeda.  The prominence of covert rather than open operations are traced for viewers invited to discover the ways that geographies are increasingly interlaced with global consequences, and indeed covert military operations are central to the storyline that the psychological thriller employs as its protagonists target imminent threats against the United States.  In the first four seasons that have move in rapid succession from fears of hidden terrorist networks that have returned to target the United States on its home ground–a persistent fear that has been playing out in the deadly bombings at San Bernardino or Paris or Brussels or Orlando, which we seem to seek to tie to islamic terrorism–and often based in a groundless demonization of Muslim faith.  To be more fair, the plot of Homeland also tracks the contested relation between remotely sensed and human intelligence–and the errors that plague how remotely observed knowledge that determine drone strikes are based.

Indeed, what is portrayed as the difficulties of converting the War on Terror into a war conducted by drones, rather than human intelligence, is one meta-narrative to which the plot of Homeland returns, raising questions about the value of dedicating the nation to a war effort increasingly based on remote intelligence.  The expansion of targeted strikes and “Capture/Kill” programs, which are designed only to kill, has led to a routinized violence focussed on place–witnessed by such slogans as “We Track ’Em, You Whack ’Em” on the NSA program Geo Cell, dedicated to tracking what are known as “high value targets” from Taliban governors to al Quaeda operatives, removed from a greater sense of grand strategy or global consequences, let alone legal and human rights, mapping locations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan, and providing them only after the fact to Pakistan’s government–as if to treat the regularity of violence in the “buffer” area as a state of exception.




We have been so repeatedly challenged to map the coherence of terror attacks that the opening sequence of the television drama traces a series of flashbacks of the news, reporting, and causalities since September 11, 2001, that with the expansion of the global war and terror have provided the narrative backdrop for a drawn-out so-called “war” which has come to cost upwards $12 billion a month, and has created some 20 million refugees.  The continuation of the “war” increasingly relies on special operations forces to track and kill members of the Taliban and al Qaeda in “capture/kill” teams not only difficult to map but taking war to a new level–teams that never aim to capture.  The rapid expansion of such covert operations as the flexible tools necessary to “target” individuals by manhunts waged in the name of national security create a shadow-war on terrorism that Homeland seeks to map as a compelling drama.  In ways that reflect the increased prominence of extrajudicial targeted killing in the “War on Terror,” no longer limited to battlefields or theaters of combat, and which since 2009 dramatically expanded through targeted drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and in an ever-growing number of kill-capture raids often located near the Pakistani border.  The dislocation of the war front from ever-growing fear of terrorist attacks is oddly thematized in Homeland‘s plot.

The “War on Terror” has resisted mapping.  In ways both cognitively and perceptually challenging to grasp ,its spatial distribution has expanded across a period of ongoing combat–so difficult to comprehend that the War on Terror has disappeared off the radar of many, save in specific instances and moments when it indeed erupts or is invoked.  Increased anxiety over mapping place is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the architecture of assassination drone strikes are terrifying in that the degree to which they both promise and enable comprehensive monitoring and surveillance of place–and the anxieties of managing the spatial distribution of suspected terrorist cells.  These anxieties of management reflect a lack of clear spatial axes or divisions between the front of war and the defense of a Homeland, and live off of the increased anxieties of deadly dangers that are able, despite our increased surveillance technologies, to grow at home, and rely an increased skills of “special intelligence” of security operatives to defeat international terrorist that move insidiously across the divides we once thought were so firm:  the tracking of his movement has been the central dramatic tension in the Showtime television drama “Homeland,” which seems to come close to endorsing the need for unsupervised surveillance, overseas informants, and to manage terrorism’s spread for which there can be no coherent strategic vision.

The steep human costs of those killed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan in over twelve years–conservatively estimated at over two million–have made targeting extremely vulnerable societies through drone strikes their centerpiece–the very same strikes that have contributed to yet more instability and violence in an already unstable regions.  For the unilateral militarism of the persistent geography of drones may indeed be a recruiting tool to the terrorists such targeted strikes seek to eliminate, given the steep damages they have inflicted on civil society, and the inhumanity of their recurrence.  Although residents in the region have grouped all air-attacks–whether from planes or other incursions–since the use of drones is emblematic of a military revolution of remotely piloted unmanned aircraft, piloted from cockpits on the ground who control their flight, as a technology to launch Hellfire missiles at suspected terrorists in triangulated locations–as a particularly disquieting dislocated landscape of targeted death.  The denatured landscape in which pushpins mark targeted positions against a Google Maps terrain view suggests a deeply unethical map of warfare–disembodied and suggesting more precise targeting of suspected terrorists than drone strikes allow.


Drone Strikes' Targets


The reach of remotely operated drones oddly breach distances to a removed theater of war, in ways that give new meaning to geographical bilocation, as landscapes are scanned by multi-spectral imaging for targets their pilots kill, often with innocent bystanders–and created an industry of training drone pilots that exceeds training for aircraft piloting.  Despite claims for precision of targeting individuals, their mechanics create a far greater level of violence by increasing the ability to target bystanders who might arrive at the site of an attack to locate its victims–even as they are celebrated as selective tools of military strikes.  Drones target place in unprecedented ways and from unimaginable distances–transforming people into targets, and striking places of targeted individuals, as the pursuit suspected terrorists responded to inability to control fears of future attacks, promising to strike terrorists anywhere.

While terrorism converts any place to a possible site of carnage–from night clubs to railroad stations to office buildings, to dance-halls, all often processed as sites of collective commemoration–the enhanced abilities of drones promise to target the exact place of an enemy that remains unseen, but carry an even deeper costs of disrupting the coherence of the social fabric of the societies we ostensibly seek to rebuild.  The difficulty of discerning place or of placing terrorism is evident in the widespread use of unmanned drones to target enemies over huge expanses of land, but revealing with a degree of local detail terrestrial projections don’t afford, and a growing demand for a far more finely grained model for mapping place than had previously existed.  The abilities for mapping place, surveilled with precision from 10,000 feet, are less about providing a coherently embodied picture than targeting unilateral military strikes.  While most drones are forced to fly great distances to reach targets, leased Pakistani airbases provided cover to coordinate covert strikes in border zones and a considerably expanded architecture of military engagement:  in response to a “covert war” declared against America, a strategy of covert engagement and operations has begun based in Yemen and Pakistan against terrorists in north Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan, often without congressional oversight.


0DADE439-2984-409A-8214-C22E4AF65020_mw1024_s_nVoice of America


Ongoing militarized struggles against the Taliban and Al Qaeda militants have continued to raise anxieties about the locations of America’s enemy unthinkable twenty years ago.

For the War on Terror has created a sense of the simultaneity of the near and far, and the difficulty of distance and data collection that has changed our experience of the world and of how war is waged over a spatially quite dispersed region:  in targeting place by the sovereignty of the drone, we focus on individuals place in space with a newfound degree of GPS precision, locating individuals by cameras on unmanned aircraft flying at about 10,000 feet, as Predators and larger Reaper drones are manipulated wirelessly to strike place.  Since 2004, drone strikes have created a dispersed militarized space in Pakistan and Afghanistan, waging warfare remotely by steering battery-run drones strikes through controls located far away from combat in quite ethically disturbing ways, attacking enemy compounds and convoys with disturbing regularity, in an attempt to stave off further future attacks.  The spatial secrecy and lack of transparency of this war have made Americans both more eager to map it, and less able to do so.


2.  Many on the ground have come to fear the menacing strikes from the intensifying use of mechanized drones as well as conventional airstrikes, but the drones strike many whose names we will never know–some 90% of drone strikes hit civilians not intended as targets between 2012 and 2013, and the  enormous uncertainties of drone technology are acknowledged even by former Defense Department officials, despite their vaunted claims for precision and “targeted” kills:  while drones can be mapped, what one sees from a drone’s cameras is compared by pilots to “looking through a soda straw” and many operators based in Nevada who “fire missiles into remote tribal territories on the other side of the world” often don’t even know  who they’re killing with much certainty, equipped only with rough evidence so abstracted from local information or informants.  Drones create an illusion of greater accuracy to target suspected terrorists, but also allow their operators–often located far outside the theater of war–to kill the wrong people, including bystander.  While popular with the American public and reducing the risk of American lives, their “death-delivering video games, drained of all humanity,” to use Glenn Greenwald’s words, profoundly confuse our collective sense of place, not least because of how they disembody violence–removing any sense of continuity or local knowledge with deadly consequences.  This mode of mapping and planning attacks threatens to remove covert incursions into foreign territory from a coherent syntactic or narrative structure.


France 24.pngFrance TV 24


Remote judgement of drones’  altitude, pitch, and operations by multiple cameras and a multi-spectral targeting system that can be read against maps offer crude guides for firing anti-armor and anti-building Hellfire missiles from Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in what has become a virtual laboratory for covert airstrikes in Afghanistan over eight years, and a laboratory for mapping place with increased precision from considerable spatial remove.


France 24 drone BLOW THIS UP.pngFrance TV 24


The contradiction of a dispersed space of warfare is quite conceptually hard to process.  The geography of military drone-strikes define place as primarily a site of surveillance–or a constellation of places subject to surveillance and possible destruction–lying outside sovereign space, and in relation to which the observer holds a necessarily uncertain position.  (Ever so eerily, unmanned targeted drone strikes outside of an existing theater of war map points of entry into a sovereign space seem to be the mirror-image of the murderous incursion of suicide bombers into targets within our sovereign airspace in 9/11.)

Does the distance of mapping, and its apparent objectivity, help understand the intense succession of violence and architecture of targeted assassination that drone strikes create?  While drone warfare was long used in Afghanistan, targeted drone strikes focussed on frontier regions of Pakistan from June 2004, particularly in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), as a region of regular cross-border incursions where US drone strikes are allowed, killing thousands of people from 2004-12, as has been charted in Chris Herwig’s time-lapse cartographic animation of CIA drone strikes that illustrates their tremendous escalation over 2009-10, if in a disembodied fashion, declining only as the US was asked to leave some of the air bases in Pakistan which the CIA used to launch drone strikes–statistics that are not included in the drone strikes run by the US Air Force or official military operations.

Because journalists are effectively banned from the region which non-residents may not enter the region or recording devices leave it, the world depends on local and regional news and accounts of surviving eyewitnesses, making any mapping of drone strikes in the FATA difficult and uncertain.  Only by culling information from local and regional news data, one map of drone strikes and the landscape of sustained civilian casualties presented to the UN Human Rights Council in 2014, while incomplete, registers the bloody concentration of total casualties in a region where Pakistan’s government tolerated American unmanned strikes from the Bush presidency through President Obama’s first term.  The landscape of drone warfare reveals a sanctioned collective carnage that would remain otherwise hidden from sight within Pakistan’s territory, but confined to the FATA–drenching its distinctive local topography in a set of splashes of bright crimson red:


drone architecture FATA.pngForensic Architecture/The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (2014):  Drone Strikes, 2004-13


with an intensity focussed most heavily on what seems the blood-stained region of Waziristan, the architecture of assassination has created a geography of strikes confined to the boundaries of the FATA but with significant estimated levels of human casualties, difficult to process for any viewer of the map, but aptly coloring the FATA an intense red–as an area where violence is not only permitted, but residents are exposed to a continuing threat of death from military and paramilitary groups alike, and lies on the margins of Pakistan, not only as a site of regular military incursions and offensive but a site where individuals can be targeted and destroyed:


Waz Close UpDrone Strikes in Waziristan, 2004-13                                                                                           Forensic Architecture/SITU Research/The Bureau for Investigative Journalism

FATA close upDrone Strikes in Waziristan, 2004-13                                                                                           Forensic Architecture/SITU Research/The Bureau for Investigative Journalism


Despite significant casualties of the over 350 drone strikes that have occurred in Pakistan since 2004, all incursions into Pakistan’s airspace, which have expanded as unilateral strikes as dronology has been refined, have contributed to a deeply warped understanding of space, with little public clarification, even as Pakistan and the United States have contributed to efforts to expel the Taliban from the northwest in recent years. Notwithstanding the blackout of news reporting from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), even the collective count of a range of drone strikes reported by the US government is challenging to comprehend.  Although a large number of drone strikes have killed civilians at unconscionable rates within the FATA for over a decade to deter or target alleged terrorists by drones, gunfire, and air strikes in a human rights disaster


blog_incident_graphicAAAS, 2005-9 Reported Drone Attacks near Pakistan-Afghanistan border


the dense clustering of strikes of unmanned drones almost perpetuated a license to target sites along the “border” in Pakistan’s northwestern provinces, obscuring their human costs–and continuing to raise pressing if undressed questions about their legality.
2005-9 drone Attacks:.pngAAAS, 2005-9 Reported Drone Attacks near Pakistan-Afghanistan border


3.  Did the killings of the portly emir Mullah Aktahr Monsour by an Air Force drone raise the bar on the regularization of drone violence?   Or did the assassination set a new bar for the sense of a displaced and dispersed site of warfare ?

The recent assassination of of the portly emir sent inside of Pakistan’s southeastern province of Baluchistan ostensibly made good on Barack Obama’s promise as a candidate to take out terrorists who threatened the United States, even on enemy soil:  after increasing successes against Afghanistan and coalition forces, the strike on the Mullah reveals the heights to which space is controlled, managed, and created in new ways during the War on Terror.  Yet with far less criticism or questioning than the 2011 killing of Anwar al Awlaki by a predator drone in Yemen on the grounds that he constituted a “significant threat” to the United States, the targeted killing rests on the sense of the preeminence of a global war on terror over recognized actual national bounds of sovereignty or individual rights.  The drone strike that targeted the Mullah was a clear invasion of Pakistan’s sovereignty, albeit against a warlord with ties to the international opium trade and acts of atrocious violence.

The killing of Mullah Monsour in Pakistan’s state of Baluchistan has been primarily portrayed in the media as a sort of chiding of Pakistan for offering shelter to members of the Taliban, double-dealing with America’s avowed enemies even as they benefitted from recent sales of American-made F-16s and affirm their status as allies.  But on what grounds are such sovereign decisions a sufficient basis for deadly incursions into Pakistan’s territory?  Mullah Mansour’s killing was not only a slapping on the wrists of an American ally.  The precision attack also  vaunted the authority of remotely operated aircraft strike by declaring that no one remained outside of the American army’s reach.  Its occurrence stood out even after the ongoing amassing of civilian casualties from a growing number of drone strikes over the last decade, targeting the northwestern provinces of Pakistan with an unrelenting degree of violence almost unprecedented in its violation of airspace, suggesting an almost complete control of the very places where targets might move or imagine themselves to hide.

The killing of the driver and the Mullah, who himself profited from increasingly healthy poppy harvests of poppy cultivation and opium harvests that funneled monies to the Taliban, marked the first time one of Pakistan’s “red lines”–sensitive areas of sovereignty now openly crossed by the United States.   The drone strike reflected the new geography of war and the rewriting of American power in an undefined theater of war.


Kandahar Poppy Harvest.pngKandahar Poppy Harvest, Allauddin Khan/Associated Press


pakistan-drone-protestS S Mirza/AFP/Getty Images 


But in “taking action against terrorist networks,” the attack showed a lack of restraint that threatens to further destabilize the presence of sovereign boundaries in the region by unilaterally affirming American interests above all others, and changing the game on the ground in a war that has continued to challenge the bounds of military engagement.

Long before the drone strike Mullah Monsour had “been under surveillance for a while,” according to Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS), who has long urged the United States to strike the Taliban in Pakistan.  The latest incursion into Pakistani territory near to southern Iran illustrated the reach of the United States–if his ties to the leaders of the Haqqani network and past obstructionism made him especially wanted.  His sudden and unexpected killing, coming as Afghan-Taliban peace talks were trying to be revived in Islamabad by efforts of representatives of the United States, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan, was not given a precise location–“in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area”–as he was tracked in taxi and arriving from Afghanistan.  While the opportune moment to strike seems to have appeared without much foreknowledge, the targeted strike benefitted from an increasing sophistication with the remote operation of unmanned drones in the region, coupled with gathering of human intelligence, perhaps in Pakistan or Baluchistan itself, allowed the unprecedented airstrike into sovereign lands in provocative ways.


thediplomat_2016-05-22_03-29-50-386x256.jpgU.S. Air Force/Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt


The geography of drone warfare is ethically most difficult to map.  The stealth courses of these unmanned aircraft that move from remote control, designed to minimize loss of pilots have now become the weapon of choice to engage terrorists world wide that they constitute almost a third of US Air Force aircraft since 2012–not comprehending or registering the many CIA drone flights that are not officially reported.  Flying unmanned drones (Unmanned Air Vehicles, or UAV) across sovereign boundaries and into foreign airspace creates a unilateral war of targeted killings without redress; drones increase the  sense of the violability of sovereign boundaries in ways that may almost render sovereign boundaries superfluous in the near future, but normalize the surreptitious nature of warfare in foreign countries.  If somewhat analogous to the dangers of rockets and aircraft created in home fronts in World War II,   drone strikes are of course occurring to provoke an even more intense sense of vulnerability and defenselessness.


4.  The strike against the emir Mulla Akhtar Mansour, coordinated by the U.S. Air Force, and not the CIA, suggested a military incursion into Pakistan’s airspace and its home front.  Despite suggestions of tacit cooperation from Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, after the Pakistan’s military had just been sold F-16’s, and some interest in preventing Mullah Mansour from developing Taliban’s ties to Iran at a delicate time in US-Iranian relations, and perhaps help better align American and Pakistan interests in relation to the Taliban.  (No statements were made by the Pakistan army or ISS for five days.)  The ability of drone aircraft to slide quite frictionlessly across national boundaries and frontiers, moving through sovereign airspace with minimal risk that make them the aircraft of an age of globalism.  We are not sure that the strike was unilateral, but the drones evaded Pakistan’s radar systems and apparently followed Mansour’s vehicle as he voyaged from Iran, either by intercepting cell phone signals or observing vehicles, to illustrate American might and the effective porousness of Pakistan’s frontiers in ways designed to terrify the Taliban, earlier confident of their protection behind the long respected “red lines” Pakistan had set as limits of violating its own frontier, and indeed described a boundary for drone attacks.  The drone strike against him followed no such protocol of orientation.




In targeting Mullah Monsour just twenty three miles past the Pakistan-Afghanistan border-line, just inside “red line” drawn by Pakistan’s government, the drone strike near Ahmad Wal in Baluchistan province crossed the “red lines” Pakistan had defined for Americans since 2010–to make a point of targeting a man in Pakistani territory, where Mansour had also lived over previous years, and travelled with a passport and perhaps with Pakistan’s consent.  If Pakistan’s Prime Minister and Chief of Army  were warned of hi skilling, and the Afghan government was in the loop, the drone is difficult to trace or even photograph, creating an increased permeability of home front lives.  Afghanistan’s leader and former Minister of Foreign Affairs identified him as a chief obstacle to peace negotiations.  Indeed, the location of the killing was, probably intentionally, tried to be concealed or left obscure for some time by the Afghani executive Abdullah Abdullah–who had long urged to strike the Taliban inside Pakistan’s territory–


Space Confusion.png



The targeted precision strike on a man traveling in a white Toyota taxi from Afghanistan reveals a confusion of territorial space and airstrikes in ways that recall nothing less than a television thriller, and raises questions of the erasure of clear bounds of sovereignty in a conflict mapped in airspace and drone range–as much as sovereign bounds.  The drone strike was the first to cross the “red line” Pakistan had established in its sovereignty, far south of the northwestern tribal belt that, on the ground, appears like it may be an incursion into a home front.  Americans were pressed by Afghani officials who argued that air-strikes must be extended into Pakistani territory, the assertion of US authority to engage in drone strikes within sovereign space expanded the theater of operations five years after Osama bin Laden’s death–and first targeting of an insurgent on Pakistani soil.  It’s unclear if the strike was done was invited by Pakistani officials, or, as one senior American officials said, they were informed only after the strike.   (Perhaps the odd construction of the entire regional engagement by the odd portmanteau contraction AfPak, as if the countries were a single constellation, may suggest some blurring of nations of territorial sovereignty; the fact that the emir was probably being tracked by his or his driver’s cell phone might mean lines of sovereign space weren’t clearly mapped before the airstrike was launched against the white Toyota carrying Mullah Monsour.)


22-Taliban-leader-drone-strike.w750.h560.2x.jpgBarkat Tareen/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images



The deadly strike may encourage a further fragmentation of the Taliban group, and make it particularly difficult to continue negotiations with Taliban leadership, even if the United States felt that Monsour was an obstacle to such negotiations–he had been identified as increasing control over splinter groups, but his death is cast, or mapped, as if he were pivot in a geopolitical balance.  Taking the war to Pakistan, however, may well prove to be about drones’ abilities to cross borders with stealth in ways that their controllers are even unsure.  The question of where the emir was traveling from remains curiously unclear, however, and may resolve questions as to why he was targeted in Pakistan’s territory:  Agence France-Presse found that the emir and his driver, an employee of a car rental company based in Quetta, were in fact traveling from Iran when killed by the drone in Baluchistan with his Pakistani driver, Muhammad Azim, whose brother said Muhammad told him that he would be “on a long drive” with a passenger “coming from Afghanistan.” Can the death of the taxi driver be explained by Mullah Mansour’s alleged intransigence?

Mullah Mansour was, to be sure, a particularly difficult and worrisome character for the American government, if not because he opposed a peace process that seems flawed.  His deep involvement in the narcotics trade from poppy fields from which he profited linked him with criminal elements that made it appealing to target his criminal activities.  His death has been widely interpreted as a direct communication to Pakistan’s government, and an invitation to offered the opportunity to rethink its relation to the Taliban, in a line that the US government has fed to the media; yet invading Baluchistan over Pakistan’s objections was considered by Washington as far back as 2009; the message seems to be primarily sent to the Taliban, and the execution of Mansour probably proceeded without consultation of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, but attempted to fragment Taliban leadership rather than continuing peace negotiations–if Afghanistan’s government described the emir as an obstacle to further peace talks, Mansour’s killing may mark an end to the negotiations Pakistan had hosted.   To be sure, his replacement by the hawkish cleric Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada as leader of the Taliban is bad news for any future negotiations–if not easily erasing many hopes for future negotiations in Islamabad, and increasing anger at staking new rules of the game.  It is hard to see, retrospectively, what exactly was gained by the strike, and incursion into a state’s sovereign bounds–either in the hopes to alter the Taliban’s leadership or structure of power or chastise Pakistan.


5.  Most maps note distances, but rarely express or indicate the relation of their content to their viewers’ place:  but the place at which we remotely watch drone strikes, or indeed target places (in order to target people) from removed places of observation suggests the conceptual difficulty of the war on terror and, perhaps, the ease for allowing its continuity.  The geography of the drone strike in a sense metaphorically encapsulates the unclear geography of a long-sustained war, whose fruits the national political system may be finally beginning to bear in the global confusion of the Republican Presidential nominee, Donald Trump, and his intolerance of all muslims and intent to expand military involvement in the region.

We collectively struggle conceptually to map the results of the ongoing twelve-years of involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Iraq war’s multiple consequences and aftermaths, but perhaps increasingly do so because of how it has blurred boundaries more than most previous wars.  It has proved disorienting, and difficult to map–either in terms of the brute numbers of its military and civilian fatalities, or providing a way to understand its contours–and perhaps one of its results in the quagmire of the current election, and one of the costs of the war is its narrative failure, and the degree to which that narrative failure led to the unexpected popularity of a Presidential candidate all too ready to reject the role of the US in the world–Donald Trump–and relinquish the place of the United States as an arbiter of global strategy.  Indeed, Donald Trump seems to be watching too much Homeland in suggesting the need to supervise all Muslim communities in the United States for their possible ties to terrorist groups, and planning to ban all Muslims from entering the United States and going so far as to blame American Muslim groups as complicit in all terrorist attacks on American soil given their “proven history of terrorism” against Americans and for “failing to turn in people they know who are bad”– as he advocates massive bombings in Iraq and Syria despite the lack of involvement of ISIS in terrorist attacks in the United States from Orlando to San Bernardino.

However, the absence of any compelling narrative about the tragic continuation of the war has failed to provide any sense of place–or bridge the huge spatial gap between a war waged overseas.  The problematic relation of the so-called “War on Terror” to our country was only rendered in new ways by Emily Prince, when she asked us to imagine the return or repatriation of military dead after four years of war and 4,000 US military dead, by locating small portraits of killed soldiers on a map, as if give these troops a new resting place and interrogate the relation of their deaths to the country.  The absence of an ability to process the war’s military sacrifice–or the deaths of Americans, as well as of Al Qaeda commanders and Taliban emirs–is a continued cognitive obstacle for almost all Americans, for whom the logic of its rhythms or its sacrifice don’t make clear sense–as its aims are no longer coherent and have so often changed long after the decision to invade Iraq and topple the local regime of Saddam Hussein, or oust the Taliban from Afghanistan. It was in order to map such a disconnect and difficult of understanding that Prince began to draw small portraits of the soldiers that question their relation to the abstract identity of the nation.  By placing small memorial images of each soldier to create a visual record of each of these deaths–and a map that grasps what meaning they had for our country –Prince users the lost soldiers in the ongoing combat, even stretching or warping the map’s dimensions in order  to accommodate the distribution of military dead.

The placement of individual portraits the military dead within an outline of the territory of the United States is an eery repatriation and tally of the dead often forgotten in the war’s geographic remove.  The symbolic repatriation of the dead on a map against the cities where each was born suggests the remove of the theater of war in which they were engaged, and died, and a spatial dissonance between the theater of war and the Homeland they were meant to defend.  There is something of an attempt at solemnity in the placement of portraits of the dead into a new resting place in the gallery offers a sort of temporary emplacement of the lost war dead, as if to start to understand their loss, that contrasts to the absence and remove of dead in the so-called War on Terror, and the spatial dislocation of that war has provoked–a dislocation all too evident in the difficulty of assembling a coherent narrative.

The map of military dead symbolically repatriates the overseas military dead,  mapping a shadow image of loss.  Its construction shocks viewers by asserting the actual proximity of the wars to our own homeland, rarely so clearly examined as consuming the nation’s landscape–and all too often treated at a comfortable remove from it.  The chorography of the nation that it assembles through individual images of military dead is an exercise of cognitive comprehension, all too apt for a war whose human costs are rarely so powerfully placed in public view:  by placing the portrait of an individual soldier mapped against a new image of a conceptual Homeland of human loss, its artists, Emily Prince challenges the viewer to register the scale of American overseas war casualties, as we approach the map and examine and learn about each of the military dead in the ongoing war on terror.


72_sturken_00_lgEmily Prince Artwork


Emily Prince Art


The levels of human losses sear the viewer in this conversion of the nation to a graveyard, open eyed faces that stare out expectantly if vacantly in ways that recall the funerary portraits in early Christian art that were meant to convey eternal life after death–but whose promise of eternity now falls flat.  The crowding of naturalistic portraits of military dead into a map not only mark the losses of America’s extended war.  Each portrait placed in the collage-like map of the United States make present the lost soldiers, with their date of death and place of birth; Prince used official photographs to craft ghostly pencil drawings particularly haunting as portraits that now render their definitive remove, and the difficulty of placing their portraits in the “Homeland” they were engaged to defend.

Each soldier’s face becomes more difficult to process collectively in the totality of a map, whose negative chorography overwhelms the viewer.  One scans the composite surface for individual storylines, beyond dates of birth and death of each serviceman and woman, as we are asked to fill in its gaps on an actual map situated by their birthplaces whose surface eloquently raises compelling questions about our relations to the sum of those individual lives.  The faces mutely look out as if headstones from the negative map, in ways tha oddly recall the funerary portraits of early Christians, if they are executed with far less care:  Prince, indeed, seems to be doing justice to each of the military dead who look out to us from the afterlife, as if to ask us whether their deaths match the hopes and desires they had when joining the military, and the specific vulnerability that each portrait retains–as the final testimonies of their lives.


77e4c25fa6e9e146d08d91373aa2327d.jpgFayum Mummy Portrait, Metropolitan Museum of Art


Scanning the surface of the map poses questions of how we might consider our relations to the dead whose bodies have returned from the continuation of the war and military presence in Iraq.  The images that Prince distributed along the surface of the crowded maps in challenging ways, by bringing the costs of a theater of war located far overseas back to the the country from which it has been so effectively compartmentalized and bracketed –and whose costs have continued to be held at arm’s length for twelve years.  The collective portraits of individual soldiers is almost unable to be read save through careful attention to the places on the map often erased in an ongoing War on Terror to target and extirpate the operators of terrorist attacks.  The collective pencil and ink portraits serve to map the nation, and to return the costs of war home to viewers, and ask us to focus attention on the connection of theater of war overseas to the society at home.




If all maps tell a story, the placement of grisaille-like portraits of sketched head-shots across the continent suggest a shadow chorography of the War on Terror in the Homeland, crowding and encompassing the immensity of a continent, gathering snapshots as if in the spliced testimony of a new Dos Passos, suggesting the need for a story which the many embedded journalists who travelled with military platoons were never able to present.  It is a “radical cartography” in challenging us to acknowledge the presence of individuals in space–or their loss from a specific place–and comprehend the continuity in losses of war in something that might be a more mindful way.  As we faced increased difficulty of even telling a story that holds purchase on the war, it seems necessary by taking stock of the negative landspace of loss.


6.  Although it does not offer anything like an actual physical map, the psychological TV drama Homeland is premised on its claim to orient viewers behind the scenes to the confused relation between domestic space and the space of an extended war on terror.  The plot line of the tense thriller bridges the disjunction between the military arena overseas and the inner workings of the government:   the collapsing of the opposition between “Homeland” and war-front within the ongoing war is revealed by its complex narrative arc over several seasons from the officer Carrie Mathieson’s initial engagement with a returning marine, held in long captivity, Lt. Nicholas Brody, who’s difficulty of returning home is complicated by his conversion to Islam and his possible status as a counter-agent–who is later converted to working for the CIA.   Brody, who disappeared in 2003, is himself evidence of the drastically changed global situation since the early war on terror:  Brody’s new faith of Islam is the first sign we have that he is indeed a double-agent, as we learnt that whilea prisoner of war during the time that the War on Terror he has expanded, and despite flashbacks to a time when he had a clear sense of who was the enemy, he must struggle to process and orient himself to the political geography that has changed.  For he has converted to Islam in Iraq, and gone to the other side, at the same time as the US government is trying to pursue the War on Terror, and was convinced to turn after a drone strike against his captor’s compound.  By the most recent season, Carrie has come full circle to work for a charitable institution offering aid to Muslims who live in the United States, as if to make amends for the classification of Muslims operatives among terrorist networks in the  US:  but the fear of such active unseen networks in the United States was a driving undercurrent in the first four seasons.

But the series seems to try to come to terms with the spread of counter-terrorism operations far outside of the theater of military engagement or open war zones–indicating the possibility of the United States as part of the ever-shifting sites of counter-terrorist operations.  The compelling attraction of its narrative arc as a psychological thriller lies in negotiating a newly hybrid confused landscape of war–from Brody’s memories to his return to his Pakistani handlers–particularly effective for bridging the unclear boundaries of an ongoing war that are particularly intriguing as they promise to fill in an absent storyline. The series is helped, to be sure, by dynamic editing that carries the viewers across a spatial divide in its several sub-plots, thematizing the distance and confusion of its characters as they move across spaces in Syria, Washington, DC, Islamabad and Berlin, but if it moves with quick cuts between isolated stories of individual faces of soldiers presumed dead and living and the battle terrain overseas, the dramatic tension works by concentrating global fates in the personal stories of special operation officers who have become the privileged tools of constructing the geography of the War on Terror with drone strikes.  Its narrative arc over five seasons that gradually cohere around questions of intelligence strategy never quite commensurate with the spatial geographies or global scope of the ongoing “War on Terror”–punctuated by the huge stakes that drone strike ireate.  If the background is the unraveling of a long-staged American grand strategy in the Middle East, stalled in its endgame and infighting in Washington, the chess-game like intelligence options are placed not only in a human story but in what seems like an insider’s view on a global war, as if to clarify and better orient us to a theater of war, the uncertainties of whose operations across domestic and foreign war theaters are laden with narrative uncertainty.

If maps denote distances within their bound space, few map gesture to or reveal the relation of the individual viewer to their space–but the relation of the viewer of the often quickly contrasting juxtaposed scenes of the Middle East and America in the pychological thriller Homeland invite the viewer to reassess their ties to the mapping of terror abroad, questioning the dichotomy between Americans and terror far more cleverly by making the drama about individual interests, and the ability to line those interests up with the pressures of war on the individual soldier.  Homeland creatively and compellingly situated itself from its opening credits in the political discourse and culture of terrorism in America from the Reagan presidency–shown in a cascade of memory images from mass-media in which the emblematic images from 9/11 that raise questions of the comprehension of memory of a crucial pivot in the continuum of late twentieth-century American history, and suggest poor or inadequate televised footage of events in the not-so-distant past–as if to question the ability for comprehending the relations of our military across space.

The confusion of spatial relations that strategy has created.  It invites us to follow a hidden human story in its plot, beneath the familiar televised exchanges that have kept us increasingly removed rom the local action on the ground that it is ready to reveal and is the bait for each episode, which serves as a psychological thriller of inside intelligence–whose central protagonist, the CIA agent Carrie Mathison long suspects the hidden al-Qaeda ties of Nicholas Brody, even trying, in an episode of compelling psychosis, to construct a compelling map that would reveal the non-disclosed ties between Brody and the landscape of terror for her former boss, Saul Berenson, to convince him that the US bombing of Iran is going to provoke a new sort of attack on American soil from the group allied with Abu Nazir, as a bomb is going to be strapped to the body of a human spy or delivered in some unknown way as she is about to undergo electroconvulsive treatment for the bipolar disorder that may have led her to obsess about the possibility of a turned former prisoner for war.  Mapping the ties to terror is a sort of madness of its own, and indeed the conceptual map that she creates showing linkages between al-Qaeda and the Brody, now a US Congressman, is viewed skeptically and despite its intuition makes no immediate logical sense.


homeland__season_4__103094995-e1419655969110Homeland/Season Two


The compelling or compulsive pull of the series lies in convincing viewers of access to a hidden narrative by which they might uncover new levels engagement of an increasing blurring of geography, not otherwise evident in the televised news or official pronouncements that have distanced us from events:  a war placed overseas has expanded multiple avenues of attack in an un-unified Homeland, as possibilities for domestic attack by terrorist networks proliferate, as plot lines follow human stories that rarely appear on public view and complicate familiar narratives of spatial engagement in one site.

The dramatic action in the psychologically thriller is often dispersed, and exists by the juxtaposition of multiple theater and sites, as we enter its serpentine individual narratives, invited to enter inside narratives of the war that are largely, we find, in fact determined by drone strikes–strikes that form background for the key narrative turning points or revelations, from the conversion of Brody to a counteragent for Abu Nazir to the attempt to locate and track terrorist networks outside of Islamabad.  In a sense, it is because of our skepticism about the coherence of a narrative of engaging terrorist networks or activities that the imaginary access Homeland offers to an inside story of the hidden plots and permutations of the return of a marine, and the cascading relations that his return provokes with the approach of a terrorist network to the Homeland that we think of as lying in opposition to a remote theater of war.  As we enter the storyline of Homeland, and accept the story it offers as an insider glimpse on a story we all suspected was in fact much more complicated than was related on the nightly news:  the implicit promise to reveal or map a hidden inner story of terrorist threats makes the dramatic series so compelling; the series’  attraction may stem from widespread conviction that the official storyline seems incomplete and unsatisfying.  The narrative of drone strikes creates an illusion of filling gaps in the War on Terror that offer individual access to the hidden backstory of espionage that helps assemble a coherent storyline.


Obama on Homeland.pngHomeland, opening credits (Showtime TV)


7.  There is a sense in which the Homeland reveals long blurred boundaries of war.  In blurring boundaries, it may bear the imprint imagined might be in the Israeli prototype on which it was modeled in showing the detailed presence of foreigners at home, in an eery reprisal of the image of unexamined status of Arabs within the Israeli state and intense anxieties about what the drawings of boundaries and actual allegiances during a time of war.  But it translates well to the uncertainty of the returning hero who we see revealed as working with a prime terrorist, only to be reconditioned as a double agent in a network of intelligence that links the Homeland and theater of war–the drama is particularly effective in convincing its audience to imagine the degree of actual proximity of terrorist networks to the United States and even to its very government, in examining the difficult navigation of a collapse of a master narrative of American policy in the Middle East.  The dispersed nature of the struggle against terror networks, who both infiltrate many spaces of government and spaces of embassies, suggest the dispersed nature of the war on terror, and the lack of any clear opposition in a battlefield when the CIA or “agency” is trying to maintain control to any degree possible over an uneasily defined foe.

The end of such a master-narrative about the space of the Middle East is apparent in supersession of any clear opposition or power dynamic to a relationship among multiple sites in increasingly tenuous balance with one another.  The presence in Homeland of two older veteran spies from a previous generation, who continue to try to make sense out of this balance–they are played  masterfully as witnesses by veteran actors Mandy Patinkin and F. Murray Abraham, and who serve as something like witnesses for the unravelling of master-narratives they once constructed, as they watch younger generations consumed by their actual disarray.  The narratives that they expect are interrupted in new ways by the occurrence of drone strikes that serve to involve viewers in the levels of drama of the psychological thriller’s plot.  If the compelling nature of sorting out this geography tends toward the overly manipulative, and the terrorists tend to be cast as stereotypes, the dramatic hook of a fragmentary geography of drone strikes–strikes that push Brody to convert to Islam and develop his tie to the terrorist Abu Nazir–a character named after the alleged Arab terrorist Abu Nasir who was killed in Waziristan–who Mathieson suspects to have turned Brody to his cause; another strike result in to deaths that cause untold problems for a young man in season four, as he becomes a spokesperson for the Taliban, only later turned by Carrie, and later strikes are close to taking out his uncle.  The strikes register the  pushing of American power beyond its actual military objectives.

The individual dramas of Homeland offer surprisingly dense corrective to a  war that is far less easily embodied.  The condensed compressed history repeated in the credits of Homeland of attack, of testimony about Pakistani-American relations, raises questions of comprehending the fear of terrorism and the Iraq war that set the stage for the return of a captive soldier, Lt. Nicholas Brody, a patriotic Virginian who signed up to serve his nation in the marines in the aftermath of 9/11, to apparent safety on American shores, and in the first season of Homeland returns “home” as a sleeper agent, in ways that challenge viewers to trace the contours of the confused relations not only of where the field of battle is to the home front, and create the illusion of disentangling the relation of America and zones of combat once located at a geographical remove:  despite the apparent remove of drone targeting of individual terrorists and a terrorist network’s ringleaders–Abu Nazir; Haissan Haqqani–as figures of indelible evil, the invitation to map the unintended consequences of the precision of drone strikes reveal a new landscape of often punctured American values. For drone strikes, if rarely depicted in real time, provide the lynchpins of the drama that one only begins to appreciate as the dramatic tensions unfold.  The dramatic success of the show is to make the division between the United States and the networks of terror it combats less fixed than we sense it to be–both by offering images of infiltration of the United States with counter-agents who return from the front, and then revealing the instability inherent in different levels of fronts that lie overseas, from Syria to the nest of terror of Islamabad.  The sequence of scenes filmed in South Africa were immediately seen as insulting by Pakistan’s government–taken as an insult for its clear lack of homework to the modern city of Islamabad, which seems a warren of possible anti-American residents and government counter-agents, subordinating the site of engagement to conventions of plot in ways that seem irresponsible for their distortion.  (And causing some disorientation for the actors who play terrorists at US airports.)

The conventions of drama seem to have necessitated an enhancement of the backward nature of an infiltrated Pakistan Intelligence Service–and a corrupted American embassy with plenty of opportunity to share secrets–yet seemed overly ready to resort to casting shelter to terror networks that the “red lines” create to an outright collaboration at levels that imply a sense of middle eastern deceit.  “Maligning a country that has been a close partner and ally of the US,” explained Pakistan’s Nadeem Hotian with some offense, “is a disservice not only to the security interests of the US but also to the people of the US.”  The imagined mapping of this site of terrorism recreated in Cape Town used actors who spoke Urdu poorly or with incorrect accents, and showed intelligence agencies as cozy with the ISIS-like terrorists, and more as “a grimy hellhole and warzone where shootouts and bombs go off with dead bodies scattered about,” replacing the “Islamabad [that] is a quiet, picturesque city with beautiful mountains and lush greenery” far from the Margalla hills, showing the city as a hopeless maze of allies, to create a site of dramatic encounters with hidden terrorists and security agents, where tensions run wild and high: the mobs that trap and capture Americans, stoning them with bats and dragging them out of car windows are “dehumanized” as an evil throng, rather than as filled with shopping malls, organized markets, residences with manicured lawns, and flower-beds–quite Americanized, rather than transformed to create an undifferentiated geography of fear where terrorists are poised to invade the city and take over the American embassy and slaughter many of its workers as Pakistani intelligence stands nearby.  The distortions that it performs by subordinating the actuality of Islamabad to the racist fantasy of a war on terrorists who lurk just outside the metropolis, the story lures us in inexorably by providing the inside story of a War on Terror in which the US government is increasingly struggling to overcome compromised information sources and a news media eager to cast the war as a Manichean struggle between Good and Evil, as if obscuring the actual map.

If the “bothering” of Carrie Mathison in a burka seems to cast Islamabad as a place where westerners would need cover to not be detected, the costuming accentuates the foreign atmosphere in ways that play to presuppositions about the region, and curry stereotypes of a foreign office on enemy turf, the geographic confusions of earlier seasons slid to something like caricature:  but the image of Carrie in a headscarf, a concretization of a mission that is undercover in a foreign city as Islamabad, may have left its writers prone to overaccentuate the foreign nature of this quite westernized place to expand its danger, and  reveal the increased unease of its close relation to multiple unknown sites existing in relation to each other, heighten because of potential ties to the world of al-Qaeda terrorists who lie nearby.


Claire Danes Crosfire.png


Yet the story that the series’ fourth season mapped of a double-dealing Intelligence where terrorists held the upper hand to the government’s own intelligence services, and indeed had permeated the intelligence services in ways that complicated the role of American intelligence–and lead to the capture of intelligence agents by an ISIS-like force.





By the psychological thriller’s fourth season, the transformation of the heroine of the series, Carrie Mathison, to a coordinator of covert drone strikes into Pakistani territory suggests a destination almost full circle form the initial unfolding over two seasons of the results of the killing of a school of Abu Nazir’s young son, who Brody had once tutored, that led to the transformation of Brody into a covert spy with deep justification to work in the Homeland for the bereft Nazir’s nefarious plot.

The centrality of drone strikes to the ongoing narrative–and its warping of the relation of the United States to the theater of war that seems never to cease to mutate and evolve–oddly reflects our own remove from the actual theater of war, and the spatial uncertainty of a war that is increasingly waged by drones that have become the preferred secretive mode of attack, and the increased remove of their remote piloting and military executions from the lay of the land.









Even as we map their consequences, we remain at an often maddening distance all too often abstracted from the ground.  While Homeland conforms too often to the conentions of the genre of espionage and the demands of oppositions between evil and good, the confusions of clear oppositions it asks its audiences to navigate seeks to orient them to a terrain that is rarely captured of the human complexity of unleashing the war on terror, and the unclear status of its warriors.  Homeland offers the fiction of an ability to assess the scene of the same drone strikes–and to witness both the losses that the drone might inflict, and the panic of living with drone attacks–far more than is available and to expose the manufacturing of storylines about ongoing war that has increasingly depended on a intensified the Central Intelligence Agency’s drone missile campaign in Pakistan, approved raids against Qaeda operatives in Somalia and launched clandestine operations from Kenya.  The individually targeted strikes challenge clear models of visualization, as the stealth war of drones have increasingly led to the transformation of the CIA into a “paramilitary organization,” targeting suspected al Qaeda leaders and terrorist compounds in ways that are difficult to understand, but which the fourth season of Homeland seemed to try to give Americans some purchase on.



8.  Rather than suggest the pushpin abstraction of strikes on a map in Afghan terrain, we can watch the arrival of drones as they are sent from mission control, and the disastrous damage that they inflict.  The drama is almost a needed therapy for the duration of an ongoing war, acknowledging as a practice the human faces on the dead–if only in fictional form–at a time when increased drone strikes have reached their apex since 2008, the moment of most intense drone strikes in Afghan war, based on civilian death tolls compiled by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and number of strikes run:  one civilian died in at least every fourth drone strike in 2015.



image12-9-1.jpegJune 2015 (Gul Marjan Farooqzoi)


The relation between a returning marine and his family were the focus of the first three seasons of the TV show, in ways that asked us to reflect on the relation of the “homeland” to the theater of war that America created, the surprising appointment of Carrie Mathieson to the coordinator of drone attacks on Afghan territories and the Taliban extend her role as a guilty conscience of America–not only in relation to soldiers returning from the war, but to the continued pursuit of the escalation of drone attacks, whose effects we have witnessed in the first four seasons of Homeland.  And the transformation of Carrie to the “Drone Queen”–an episode from season four–shows her moving from the strike that she ordered on a wedding ceremony in the tribal country to her attempts to befriend a surviving victim of the strike, in ways that offer an expiation for the keen sensation of many at the unethical remove at which we remain from such targeted strikes, imagining the control rooms in which such strikes are ordered from afar as we imagine the new geography of war that drone strikes create, by showing the human sides of attacks we have yet to comprehend adequately in maps.


7.  The geography of spatial distribution that the television thriller acts us to retrace mirrors the complex relation and distribution of our own national intelligence networks and armies overseas.  In part, it raises questions about the incursion of American forces into the airspace and civil society of nations that are, in fact, not at war with the United states and have become entangled in how we map terrorism and terror networks and seek to map our control over the distribution of terror networks in the world.  And although the strike on Osama bin Laden was not performed by drones, it almost might have been–based as it was on the secret deployment of marines at the housing complex where he was based, tracking bin Laden remotely by his trusted courier, and watching a televised version of the firefight of Navy Seals that allegedly led to his capture watched in White House.




The spatial distribution of “Homeland” reflects the complex geography of the targeting and killing of Osama Bin Laden to Abbottabad, a town near to Islamabad–rather than in the more remote Tribal Areas where he was long rumored to be hidden–created the first strike against Pakistan’s land–



Yet the invasive nature of the drone piloted from abroad as it made incursions in a foreign airspace offered the script for the mission to Abbottabad.  Indeed, fifteen years after the events of 9/11 attacks, the policy of Barack Obama has not only “maintained many of the core elements of the global war on terror”  in initiated by George W. Bush, that foreground drone warfare, assassinations, and special operations forces, even if these attacks targeted people who were not members of the Taliban.  Drone strikes have forever altered the lives of militants and civilians during the Obama administration:  the celebration of the execution of Osama bin Laden in 2011 as a paradigmatic remotely orchestrated operation–itself watched by live video feed from the White House, as Navy Seals entered a mansion or safe house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, one Sunday afternoon, to monitor the killing of the terrorist whose death or capture had been openly made a priority long before Obama’s administration–but whose killing by a squad of Seal Team 6 was watched with intense curiosity from Washington.  Or was this only a sort of photo op, as suggested by Seymour Hersh, as officials would have been watching only to make sure that the Pakistani ISIS who had been holding bin Laden in confinement for some time, ready to be assassinated by seals–and were staging the “capture” as an event that American forces had orchestrated alone. Room


Even as military casualties have been reduced in Afghanistan, with the official unilateral withdrawal and declaration of the war’s end, yet the scope of ongoing drone strikes have intensified over time, through 2014 and 2015, as U.S. military fatalities have grown.



The increased use of drone strikes against targeted militants provides a problematic way of tallying deathly strikes whose damage assessment is deeply difficult to calibrate with accuracy, but has significantly grown.


Drone Strikes in Pakistan--Obama:Bush


The conflict with terrorism in a way has created a new basis by which geography is mapped, and by which we are always challenged to reorient ourselves to the world.  The television show capitalized upon this disorientation–a disorientation increased by the remotely waged war of drone strikes against unnamed “insurgents”–by situating the silent if ongoing war of drone attacks its storyline, and uncovering their alteration of the landscape of the middle east, as well as its terrain, among a set of characters who move between ongoing theaters of operations to the land they are defending.  In early seasons of the show, we find that not only are many terrorist cells in the homeland, but that newscaster for Al Jazeera is working for the group commanded by Abu Nazir, and a clear dividing line that maps onto territoriality increasingly difficult to draw.  As we move between public statement and back story, official newsreels and personal story of private lives lines, the absence of a clear picture of the lay of the land in Pakistan is increasingly clear–as is the impossibility of separating the homeland from the war.

The program is compelling as a narrative that follows an unravelling of clear boundaries between “there” and “here”–between Washington and the Middle East, in the Age of Drone Strikes–not to speak of the original mission of involvement in Pakistan and in the region, whose geopolitics overlap with its stories of individual relationships.


8.  From the first seasons of Homeland, viewers were led through the alternate realities of Brody having returned “home” from apparent captivity in the Middle East with a mind changed by his time in Afghanistan, the oppositional relation once drawn between America and Al Qaeda is far less clear than it once appeared to the Virginia working class kid who left his wife and joined the military in the wake of the terrorist acts of 9/11.  The difficulty of drawing a boundary with the clarity of a line in the sand is epitomized in microcosm by Brody’s difficult to readjust after having witnessed the relation of the United States and local militants through the effects of a drone strike, and converted to Islam, Brody’s mind is filled with particularly graphic flashbacks that as  we watch challenged the viewer to remap relations between American and the mid-East, they challenge the flimsiness of a coherence of geographical remove that can no longer make so much sense for his life, and to shudder at the increasing penetration between homeland and war front until they effectively dissolve.  The beauty of the television drama is the extent to which the confused memories of Lt. Brody–and his difficulty of appreciating the allegiance he wants to follow–is both foreign and mirrors the confusion of collective memories of the ongoing Afghanistan war and its complex evolution from the Iraq Wars.

Brody’s conflicted priority and his individual story encapsulates the complex relation  –told through the eyes of CIA operatives who straddle the continents, and target regions whose exact topography we stand at a considerable remove, despite the contradiction of the precision at which we are able to map, by drones and maps and overhead flights, the terrain on which the extended conflict is waged.  For whereas the first gulf war provoked a massive airlift of printed paper regional maps of Iraq, ferried in vast numbers for troops and commanders in the First Gulf War, in hopes to orient themselves to the land, the shifting landscape of drone warfare suggests a landscape particularly difficult to concretize, but which it is part of the success of Homeland to do–both by showing the difficulty of different actors as they struggle to orient themselves tot he landscape of the conflict in Afghanistan, and the difficulty with which they do so.  And the inheritance of clear lines of a mission become increasingly confused even for Saul Berenson by the fourth season of Homeland, as several members of the American embassy are found to collaborate with terrorist groups, and the landscape of the Middle East is increasingly difficult to recognize at first hand–even as we have physically and socially changed the landscape of the middle East.

The intersection of different generational levels of officers who orient themselves to the lived landscape, aided by cross-cutting or flashbacks to the perspectives of inhabitants on the ground, provide an illusion of the constant struggling to process the landscape of war that is defined by drones–but that drone strikes seem to have made increasingly difficult to recognize or understand, as the local inhabitants have gained familiarity with how to manipulate and orchestrate fake drone strikes of their own.




In part, this is the landscape that the increase dependence on drones, rather than local human intelligence, has created.


Drone Strikes' Targets


But the unfolding of the drama increasingly reveals the twists and turns of the blurred and fraught traffic between the Middle East or Islamic world, with which no clear boundary anymore exists, and the levels of knowledge we have to judge the networks of terrorists, foreign secret service agencies (ISS), and the hybrid sorts of intelligence on which the CIA depends in an age of drone strikes.  From a story of one individual who is returning to America after a period of years spent with Al Qaeda leaders in Iraq, we learn how his own mental state has been changed by the ties that still inform his daily actions, and enter a world where knowledge from afar is forever more complex when one is transported more closely to the ground.


Execution squads


The implicit message of the arcing storyline of the danger posed by the remove of drone strikes from human knowledge that goes “straight to the heart of the drone strike argument” on the benefits of targeting high-visibility terrorists, and of the dangers of what is generically termed “collateral damage” of civilians whose lives are ended by the strikes.  Is the knowledge streamed by surveillance planes, later episodes ask, sufficient for targeting individuals?  And what happens when bad information is fed to the CIA command?  Is targeting individuals by drones even ethical as a form of war?  Obama has described watching the show regularly as a “guilty pleasure,” and Homeland Security Director Jeh Johnson is a fan–the explicit treatment of the collateral damage of drone strikes that terrorize Pakistani and others.  In ways that directly engage the ethics of drones, more fully and complexly than does most news, the celebration of the deaths of those targeted by drone strikes is mapped onto the experience of their deadly effects on the ground–and in the continued extension of a war that looks more and more like an ongoing military struggle.  If the United States withdraws from Islamabad in Season Four, the war continues, off-screen.



remotely piloting drones


The problem of drones and remote intelligence from drones is framed in Homeland as one of geographical knowledge–and the ethics of continuing a remotely waged war.  While we persist in keeping up the pretense of a clear dividing line between Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Washington, the exchange of information is in essence mapped in all the potential possibilities for its lacunae of on-the-ground knowledge or human intelligence.  For even if we simply aren’t in the know or as involved as the somewhat unlikely CIA protagonists in the show–who have come to realize (and struggle with) the extent to which the old oppositions between east and west, or Iraq or Iran with the events of modern-day America, can be said to ever be separate anymore.

The border-crossing of operatives and station chiefs who have superior intelligence and wage the covert war provided an increasingly central axis along with the dramatic tension in Homeland has been mapped.  The fluidity that has existed across generations, and is manifested in multiple smaller sub-plots and seemingly minor characters, is not only a subject of fear, but has become an aspect of the everyday in our own lives–as the drama of day-to-day executions by drones and targeting of terrorists has provided a background soundtrack over the past ten years of which we have been increasingly conscious, yet have rarely come to terms, even as we have continued to accelerate the quantity and range of drone strikes in the hopes to end the war–but as the deployment of drone strikes against targeted individuals creates an increasingly obscured relation to space, bred from the sense of increased certainty  but perforce removed from the ground and occurring against the backdrop of a far more flexible and canny intelligence waged by those on the ground.



Rise of the Drone.png


The landscape of sustained drone strikes across Pakistan has not only so altered the actual changed relation to the land, but destabilized a landscape over which American military and CIA have an increasingly unsure relation–as Homeland reveals–and the topography of Pakistani relations to the terrain that has been so strongly pounded is absent from any recognizable concept of governance with which the United States and CIA operate.


Drone Strikes in Pakistan--Obama:Bush.pngSlate–Interactive Map by Chris Kirk


Tracing a story of the first terrorist attacks on US warships to an almost perpetual state of “remaining vigilant” against future attacks, the series addresses the challenges of maintaining our own shifting mental geography of current events, where the waging of a sustained war overseas has given a clarity and concreteness to the terrain of targeting individuals–as much as a lived environment landscape.  The landscape is most often depicted as not inhabited or habitable, but hostile in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the disorientation of negotiating the landscape on the ground by station chiefs in Islamabad or Kabul mirrors the unease we have in processing our own country’s military engagement there.

Homeland invites us to trace overlaps between American forces sent oversees who take on new identities during symbolic homecomings to Iranian soil.  Although the series takes its title from the Homeland Security Department founded by President George W. Bush in the wake of the destruction of New York’s World Trade Center by suicide bombers’ hijacking of passenger planes on  9/11/01, it is concerned with the aftermath of the extended tortured relation to Beirut, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan that has emerged, focussing on the technologies of observation that US military has come to employ in a daily manner, through the lives of six or seven individuals who struggle to ascertain and come to terms with the tortured relation to the land and its actual inhabitants from individual perspectives, whose lives map in microcosm the historical role of the United States in the region’s complex geopolitics, from the arrogance of the new CIA commander to the old hand perspective of the made up character Saul Berenson, to the pilots and commanders of actual drones.

The television drama is particularly compelling, as it continues it has come to question what “homeland” is as a category –as well as what the homeland of those who live in tribal regions.  Indeed, after beginning with the arrival of an apparent prisoner who served as an American marine from what seemed an Iraqi prison, the series’  progression increasingly fosters a spatial confusion of allegiances as the confusion of ties within the government is revealed, that tries to process the continuation of what seems an ongoing appendage of the American military in much of the Middle East since the invasion of Iraq began–and the eruptions of sudden sensations of geographical proximity with which we’ve yet to come to terms.




For if the long history of the level of American entanglement in the affairs of Middle Eastern countries becomes the setting for the human drama of Homeland, the point seems to be that the far-off is now met by an almost post-modern space that is not so uniform, after all, and over which human paths criss-cross more than was earlier the case, when Saul Berenson fled Teheran after the last days of Shah Pahlevi’s rule, or the Beirut that Kerry once patrolled–and the Mossad are less our co-workers than entrusted suspects, even if the show was originally modeled after one on Israeli TV.  Watching the psychological thriller unfold, one’s compelled to reflect on the shifting relation we feel to the war, and the inability of the officers we follow to effect any clear or desired change– and the complex layers of entanglement in what was once conceived as a playing board.

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Filed under 9/11, data visualizations, distributed networks, drone strikes, drone warfare, geography of war, Homeland (TV Show), Iraq War, Pakistan, terrorism, War on Terror

A Rapidly Disappearing West

The diminishing greenspace across much of the Western United States has rapidly rewritten a landscape of once-open lands.  Such rapid curtailing of open spaces, as much as revealing a change in landcover, has deeply altered the local experience of the very landscape and fragmented wildlife habitat in ways challenging to map-so radically have deep changes altered our experience of its landscape on the once-virgin west through the rapid modification of once-rural lands.  With over a hundred million acres lost to modification by humans, a decade of satellite imagery of landcover over eleven western states and multiple datasets of different sorts of human activity Conservation Science Partners have analyzed, the Center for American Progress commissioned a striking interactive website of land use, The Disappearing West, as a starting point to survey and take stock of the scale of massive environmental changes created by an ongoing collective redefinition of how we have come to inhabit the new landscape of the American west.

The progressive alteration of the landscape over a decade is difficult to comprehend.  But the streaming of this data into multiple layers, superimposed on individual states, counties, and urban areas allows foregrounded layers of the map to jump out at viewers in particularly effective ways.  They help parse the extent of development across the eleven western states that fills 165,000 square miles of landscape–a change in landcover equivalent to the construction of parking lots for six million superstores, and at an annual rate of an area almost as great as the footprint of the entire metropolitan area of Los Angeles–and far greater than the footprint of New York City, according to US Census records of the loss of natural lands used by Conservation Science Partners–to create a virtual profile of land conversion in an area that is increasingly fragmented by road, as once roadless areas are exposed to development.  The intensity of anthropogenic change has been to some overshadowed by intensity of drought and of global warming, but distances the land in a terrifyingly definitive manner as the region is carved and segmented by roads and transportation routes.


land conversion


The web maps focus on a uniquely revealing index of the human footprint, rather than cities, or jurisdictional lines, to suggest the extent of how we are re-writing a relation to the land.  They aim to comprehend the loss of land over time a region that experiences the loss of a football field of uninhabited lands every 2.5 minutes, and foregrounds a contraction of open lands that one can zoom to local levels, against which cities and regional names float in ghostly manner, as if it describes the changes that underly a simple road map of place-names and individual states.  Its flexibility helps viewers take stock of the acceleration of these changes over time in ways that we have only begun to take stock collectively; indeed, the maps force us to come to terms with the scale of recent “development” of open lands in ways that have been rarely so effectively or dramatically synthesized in one site.  The idolized aspect of a map as a “world/ not of this world” was described affectionately by the Polish poet , which “give no access to the vicious truth,” but the web maps in The Disappearing West expose the degradation of over-inhabitation–as do statistics that conjure the appearance of six million superstores in a formerly Virgin land.

How to map or take measure of the alarmingly rapid shrinking of open lands is difficult and challenging to render, if only because the scale and rapid rate of their disappearance is so great.  The loss of open lands in the region is especially important to map in comparison to the rest of the United States in an era of increased severity of drought–if only to take stock of the shifting patterns of land management that have led to such a massive transformation of the lived landscape.  The multiple scales and avenues for exploring and assessing the contraction of open space across the western United States.  In the Disappearing West, interactive maps trace the changed landscape from 2001 to 2011 that invite observation at multiple scales.  The richly colored web maps try to grasp and appreciate the vast scale at which the conversion of once-open spaces across the western United States over a decade, and the stark remove of the past.  The interactive synthesis of levels of development and extra-urban growth help take stock of the tremendous loss of open lands in states, counties, and localities over a decade, each able to be tracked with the help of an interactive slider bar.

The sense of navigating an accelerated virtual record of the changing landscape of the west communicates the rapid loss of lands to development traces the extent of lost open spaces difficult to imagine at any scale.  They focus not only on landcover, but the disappearance of the open spaces that were once thought of as open lands.  Although we can map multiple indices of human impact have been ascertained as being predominantly agricultural, the disappearance of lands to private land development paints a picture of the curtailing of landscapes once thought as innate to the region.  The dramatic scope of anthropogenic change is as immense as in the expansion of intrusive sound-levels of human-made noise across lived environment and national parks, or the diminution of the sounds of species that remain in what we still call the natural world.  The loss of such open spaces are the natural corollary to these anthropogenic shifts–but provide an even more acute register of the loss of once-“natural” habitats in which a range of birds, grazing animals, and insects dwelled, and the transformation of landcover that development has wrought.  While strictly analytic as a parsing of a large datasets, the striking color schemes of these web maps raise multiple alarms about the changing landcover of the west and the new landscapes that we increasingly have come to inhabit in once virgin lands.

The change in landcover across the West is challenging to map comprehensively and in adequate detail to convey the change in landscape that has occurred.  A compelling visual synthesis of the massive contraction of open spaces over a large area maps the loss of wilderness due to increasing development–largely on private lands–by directing attention to the changing of the landscape of the west, by synthesizing a range of data on the conversion of formerly open lands.  The human impact on the lands of western states has so accelerated that the percentages of lost lands have rewritten the landscape over a third of the country, fragmenting open spaces from 2001 to 2011, as the drastic diminution of open lands grew with the expansion on and development of private lands. This development of once-open spaces across the West has mapped a deep transformation present across the memory of a generation.

At the same time as much of the region has been transformed by drought, the transformation by construction of private homes outweighs the changes caused by agriculture.  Sadly, the pace of development of open spaces over the past two decades is especially tragic since in much of California’s regions and especially its Central Valley they parallel the decline of water storage in due to drought, as declining groundwater availability–California’s Central Valley alone has swiftly lost some 4 trillion gallons of water annually in recent years, dramatically changing the distribution of water storage since 2002 as evident in the composite pictures, color-enhanced, based on data registered by NASA’s Gravity Recover and Climate Experiment Satellites–




Mapping drought may offer as compelling and arresting picture than the increased overbuilding of the landscape’s open spaces, but the conversion of open landscape create a particularly unforeseen and tragic combination of circumstances.  There have been many attempts to map the transformation of the west at adequate scale, but rarely with such neatness in delineating the change in landscape over time.  The decline of the “commons” or of public spaces of wilderness maps a sudden change in perception of place over ten years has redefined the twelve states we know as the West, building on land at a massive clip and making incursions on what are far from virgin lands. In an iconography that recalls climate change, the increasing loss of open spaces suggests not only a landscape of increased fragmentation, but a decrease in carbon sequestration, and quite a contrasting image to the 2007 Western Land Cover Database‘s far more restricted image of developed lands–colored below in bright red, in a landscape that is dominated by deciduous forests (light green) and evergreen (dark green)–and presents a verdant landscape of pines, albeit in a frozen pdf that prevents close-up observation.

This map, based on satellite-based remote sensing of the spatial boundaries of ecosystems, notes disturbances by carbon production, rather than agricultural modification, to assess future potentials of carbon storage and sequestration in a period of climate change.  Many maps of shifting landcover barely succeed in registering the extent of its loss, and do a deep disservice to rendering the extent of such change or its rapid pace–as well as being far less dextrous in their synthesis of so great a range of datasets in easily legible terms.


Nat Landcover Database.pngNational Land Cover Database (2007)/Zhu, Sleeter, Griffith, Stackpoole, Hawker and Bergamaschi


The accelerating reduction of open space across the West over generational memory can be examined in striking detail in the layers of the interactive map of relative losses of lands across the eleven western states from 2001 to 2011, which synthesized data on the loss of open spaces over time at multiple scales.  As if to offer a basis to place oneself in the changing landscape of the western states over time, the interactive viewing almost simulates an ability to enter the landscape that it maps.  Viewed county-by-county, it reveals regions of sharp degradation, and a concentration of a loss of lands around regions of extra-urban growth, from which one can also examine at significantly higher resolution to examine local impact at up to thirty meters–providing a neat register to toggle between three datasets.  When paired with a slider bars to examine the contraction of open spaces and land conversion over years, the map parses data on different scales to chart the contraction of open spaces that help one come to terms with a massive level of landscape change and the scope of widespread degradation–and force us to terms with its consequences by inviting us to drill deep into the actual data of indices of landscape change.


2000-11 land loss in WestThe Disappearing West


By shifting scales to view regions of increased loss of open lands provides a snapshot of development across the west–based, to be sure, in California, but equally afflicting Washington, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado in a spate of conversion of formerly open lands, we drill into new layers of data on the loss of open lands that is so difficult to be objectively seen.

The changing nature of the human landscape many have received far less attention than climate change and rising temperatures, but has long proved especially difficult to grapple, as the combination of increasing construction of suburban plots to create rapidly expanding extra-urban areas conspires with the search for new energy sources to radically transform what once was considered wilderness, or the open spaces that defined the western United States.  Private development of land across the west suggests not only the dangers of the decline of “public lands” across the west–at odds with mappings of the myth of the dangers of federal land ownership in western states, which a neat map argues define the region, condensing the total federally owned acreage to red icons incubating as parasites within individual states.  Yet the persuasive geography of the intrusion of the federal government in the landscape conceals the huge shift in land management policies over the previous decades that have facilitated the loss of open spaces in the same region.


Federal Land OwnershipShare of Federal Ownership of Land per State (2008)


If he aggregation of such lands, often desert, conceals the rapid rates of buildings in much of the west,  the datasets that inform the heavily researched The Disappearing West offer a set of countertops that reveal the reduced landscape of the American west to private development.  If the above map taunts viewers by describing the overprotection of western lands, it both distorts and omits the huge impact that private land ownership has made on the lived landscape of most western states.  In doing so, moreover, it creates a deeply ahistorical contrast between the amount of lands protected in the western third of the United States from their actual integrity as open space.  The mandate to map the actual dismemberment of once-open spaces on the margins of federally owned lands is the mandate of  The Disappearing West–and the ability to drill down into finer grained landscape changes across the wester states is one of the huge benefits of the new website sponsored by the Center for American Progress.   The far greater datasets that the web maps distill direct attention to the degradation of open lands in ways that questions of “ownership” or “federal management” almost intentionally obscure.

Czeslaw Miłosz was an especially keen observer of borders and boundaries–“I was born and grew up on the very borderline between Rome and Byzantium“–and a witness to the departure of the lost landscape of the Lithuanian forests of his childhood he witnessed as a child.  Miłosz was deeply affected by the rural upbringing that he described in much of his literature and long meditated upon in his extremely productive writing, from a meditation on the metaphysical devastation of the modern landscape in the Land of Ulro to California.  Although the Polish émigré poet may seem an odd witness of local landscape change, Miłosz was closely tied to the the forested rural landscape where he was raised, a landscape “on the scale of the human” that was still “thickly wooded by oaks,” that his observations of the changes in Walnut Creek in a 1987 entry in The Year of the Hunter seem especially acute as a record of the modern landscape.  Miłosz described the shock of revisiting the changed landscape over the Berkeley Hills, which he remembered as he first visited it in 1960, and as being forcibly struck by its sudden contraction of wilderness as emblematic of spiritual disenchantment.

Miłosz grew up in rural areas of Lithuania, and commemorated the loss of open lands with the parcelization of its dense woodlands during his early childhood.  If the forested landscape of the Issa Valley in his early novel of the same name resurrected a lost relation to a past landscape and its sounds by the thick descriptions worthy of a naturalist, in which he had evoked a time of immediate contact with the “safety of the tall forest” and the broad use of woodlands as a commons where timber was harvested carefully for common needs.  In The Issa Valley, Miłosz sought to recuperate the proximity of perceptions of forested land, a novel written after he had left Poland and lived in Paris, precisely to preserve the human scale of the relation to the land of his youth:  he wrote most sympathetically from the eyes of the child protagonist Thomas, a thinly-disguised version of his youth, closely tied to the forest and its inhabitants, so distraught by any disruption in a wooded landscape for which he felt such “reverential awe” that he “would have made plowing a criminal offense,” that he created a map of its forever intact status as a wise response to the deep changes in a landscape that is about to be parceled by the apportionment of late nineteenth-century Land Reform.  Thomas both maps this lost landscape in colored paper strips, as a “virgin forest” as a landscape with some meadows, “laced with blue strips of canals and lakes as [its] only arteries,” mapping the entirety of its expanse in a map of green strips of paper, criss-crossed by rivers.  The soon to be fragmented forest is for Thomas the site of “all the Kingdom’s inhabitants–. . . the bison, the elk, and the bear [who] lived exclusively off the land,” and as the novel lovingly recorded insects, birds, and animals, Thomas seeks to catalogue the birds that lived in its birch, pine, and conifers in an attempt  to comprehend their immensity to try to capture being embedded in its sensory detail and the lushness of the lived environment Miłosz so successfully evoked.

In his prose masterpiece, The Issa Valley, Miłosz created a deeply ethical relation to the landscape he later discovered the western landscape, exploring the California landscape at first hand and in the work of the poet Robinson Jeffers he so admired.  While in Berkeley, he would make pilgrimage to the Rare Books Room to return  to maps of Poland and Lithuania in a cartographical fantasy, as if to revisit and inhabit these wooded landscapes lost with time, and if he long viewed the northern Californian landscape as  foreign during the four decades he lived there, he observed its history analogously to his memorable hero in The Issa Valley to testify to a human relation to space, during a time of Land Reform in the late nineteenth century that had altered the individual relation to its forested landscaped.  Much as Thomas constructs a “paper kingdom . . . that could be assembled and reassembled at will” during the winter months when he lived indoors, and outside of its living landscape, Miłosz’ prose mirrors Thomas’ cartographical fantasy of multi-colored map out of strip of paper by “sheets embellished with watercolor designs, rectangles of all sizes, and boundary lines making up the property map of Gine,” dexterously using or improvising an alternative cartography to recreate his personal relation to the lands he senses are increasingly out of reach–not just seasonally, but due to their impending parcellization and fragmentation.  Thomas used cartography when weather confined him indoors to recreate his sense of communion to its lived experience and totality, at the moment when he most felt the land’s absence.

If Thomas’ map clearly creates a child’s perspective on the Land Reforms in the  imaginary relation to the forested landscape, and a counter-cartography to the parcelization of the forest, the map is also a figure for how Miłosz’s novel recreated his childhood relation to Lituania’s forested landscape and the proximity in which its residents lived to its woods.  Thomas was inspired to map the forests he lovedafter seeing “the rolls of paper with Grandfather and Aunt Helen . . . periodically unrolled on the table” of their manor, to create a “kingdom” of its own that provided a refuge in a time of change in response to the Land Reforms, Thomas employed vividly expressive colors of the paper map to preserve a pristine landscape out of “sheet embellished with watercolor designs, rectangles of all sizes, and boundary lines,” to give the forest new integrity as Land Reform facilitated its eventual parcelization; in Thomas’ map, “no roads cut through the forest–[for] how could a virgin forest be traversed by a road?–leaving the riverways, laced with blue strips of canals, and lakes as the only arteries.”  The woodlands existed once more in the paper map Thomas crafted as a “kingdom, ringed by quagmires inhabited by the red-hooded snake, was absolutely impenetrable”–as if in a counter-map in contrast to the parcelization of forested lands.  The young Thomas was “big enough and bright enough to grasp what was happening” in Land Reform in Lithuania, “but his heart wasn’t in it,” and he turned to maps and Linnean taxonomy in hopes to preserve what he sense would face impending loss, as if in hopes to capture “impressions of forest spring, whose beauty derived not from any one thing in particular but from a myriad of voices comprising a chorus of promise” from its treetops.

In response to how during “various family conferences held around the [same] table, people huddled over maps and the word ‘reform’ was a constant refrain,” Thomas’ maps seek to order the landscape–as similarly, in a scrapbook a register of the taxonomy of birds who dwelled in coniferous forests, pine, or birch, “concentrating on things that excited him,” he sought to to preserve the “the endless multiplicity of colors, shadings, mating calls, trills, wing sounds . . . [how] light modulated their feathers in flight,” by “affecting and ordering the plenitude of things that were”–as if to preserve a relation to the landscape which “neither ‘reform’ nor any ‘business matters’ could compete.  While the map has been seen as a distancing device, in other words, by Wisława Szymborska, in which only “a few trees stand for ancient forests,/ [and] you couldn’t lose your way among them,” the forests are for Thomas living entities and ecosystems.  The map Thomas improvised described immersion in an imagined landscape by “sheets embellished with watercolor designs” offer a metaphor to recuperate an imagined relation to the landscape and a figure for Miłosz to describe the landscape in which he matured, and indeed as a lamentation of a lost contact to nature, through Thomas’ relation to the forests where he lived as if in sacred communion, like a young John Muir.

For young Thomas, the construction of his imagined map responded to the confusion and lamentation of the transformation of the lands in which he lived.  It also prefigured the poet’s own relation to the formerly Virgin Land of the far western United States when he arrived in California.  For Miłosz seems to have struggled with how Land Reforms converted all forested timberland in Lithuania to state property, as state assessors apportioned lands that altered Thomas’–and Miłosz’s–relation to a sense of the commons of the forest and its inhabitants.  Miłosz would similarly lamented the lost world of children who had lived in the forested lands by Walnut Creek in a manner that led him to recall his own childhood, described in The Issa Valley, evoking the tenuous relation to the land that Thomas’ map provided, and the attempt to restore a lost sense of the forested land in which he had immersed himself by making it present to his senses even in wintertime.  Who can deny that the The Disappearing West traces a similar counter-cartography of even broader scale, mapping the transformation of environmental change and processing the consequences of recent development to multiple layers for viewers to investigate.

Miłosz similarly mourned this loss of virgin landscape in the West.  It’s not much of a surprise if the changed presence of woods and vegetation in the open spaces of California provided Miłosz with an occasion for meditating on the loss of landscapes which he felt so directly tied–if not landscapes “on the scale of the human” of his youth but of a more monumental grandeur.  The changed landscape of the region offered a powerful invitation to reflect on the vanished Lithuanian forests of his childhood in his prose masterpiece The Issa Valley, as if a melancholy witness of the changed landscape over time.  “I did not choose California,” Miłosz famously declared; “It was given to me.”  Miłosz valued poetry as a form of bearing witness, and moving from the individual to broad ethical questions of universal character, and wrote not only of his personal experiences:  California’s landscape was not only a center of meditation for both its beauty and the species that populated it–and defined its distinct historically made nature–but a landscape for which he was particularly grateful.  For the California landscape accommodated the moral voice in which Miłosz wrote that was not only personal, but had an urgency that transcended his own experiences.  As he described his birthplace on the “outer edge of Europe” as the best place to witness European-ness, he witnessed the California landscape not only in gratitude for its existence but with a shock of loss for what was taken away that day in 1987.

Miłosz had come to reorient himself to the California landscape in his life in quite dynamic ways, even as he imaginarily shuttled  between Lithuania and California in idiosyncratic ways as landscapes to whose changes he bore witness:  he had assimilated the the landscape of California from the view from its hills above the San Francisco Bay, even if he decried its “scorched emptiness” of “hills the color of straw,”  and the same “straw-colored slopes” he revisited in Walnut Creek were lamented for the loss of chestnut orchards that once filled an uninhabited valley east of the Berkeley Hills where he lived–“straw-colored slopes punctuated by black oaks throughout most of the year” and “chestnuts in the valley.”  In 1987, he encountered a landscape that registered man’s changed relation to a natural world, and witnessed the loss of its past environment.  What had once been countryside, if “quite desolate landscapes, with their dry grass and wiry oaks” were no longer by 1987, replaced what had once been “a land, empty and vast” with developments whose artificial irrigation allowed them to be occupied “streets and houses covered with green foliage, lawns, tennis courts, swimming pools, parks”–where, Miłosz marveled, a metro now extended “all the way from San Francisco” to a region whose countryside had been previously removed from urban life of the Bay.

What Miłosz witnessed as a microcosm of the disappearance of open space in the countryside that had begun east of the hills where he lived was a microcosm of the fragmentation of open space, surviving now only in “relics” within developments artificially maintained by irrigation projects.  Miłosz felt in 1989 that the place environmental pollution occupies in “universal attention” to the neglect of the growing “pollution of the mind by the image of the world imposed by advertisements”–but the poet bemoaned the loss of the expanses of wiry oaks and dry grass relegated to a lost past in a specific lament against urban expansion as a departure of a lost world of sensations.  That same region is today far more developed, as roads, lined by houses with expansive paved driveways and gardens extend into the former farm fields now dotted with shopping malls.  For Miłosz, the diminishment of California’s open landscape became a site for weaving memories of other lost landscapes of his youth; the disappearance of the oaks of Walnut Creek presented an invitation for a late in life reflection on the past landscape of the “swarming world” of the Lithuanian forests, in which “crickets hoped in the grass, beetles raced around, red ants (the ones that bite the worst) and black ants of various sizes swarmed, caterpillars of many colors and shapes were found on the leaves.”  In California, insects are today reduced chemical methods, he reflected, and farmlands segregated; the nature of his childhood seemed so distant from today’s childhood spaces, which seemed increasingly, and not only in Walnut Creek, experienced in extra-urban housing tracts clearly set apart from land dedicated to farming.  “Now the city is everywhere.”

When Miłosz has arrived in Berkeley, he turned to geographical maps of Poland to gain access to traces history left in the lost landscapes of his youth, tracing arable landscapes shaped by human work that he valued for how they existed on the scale of the human.  If he often felt removed or alienated from a modern landscape–Miłosz claimed to have “lived through rebellion against California landscape” for some twenty years–he admired the chain of parks in the Berkeley Hills and its open space of trees, from its eucalyptus forests .  He long viewed landscape as bearing the tragedy of the imprint of the human, even evoking something close to how the maps in The Disappearing West trace a broad scale of loss in describing the danger with which “the Universal is devouring the Particular, . . . places which not long ago were celebrated as homelands under oaks trees are now no more than States on a map.”   Miłosz, who spent his youth drawing maps of imaginary forests in a Virgin Land without signs of human habitation, and returned to maps to capture the Lithuanian landscape of his youth with a sense of loss, might have found maps in The Disappearing West particularly poignant tools trace a broader scale of loss; the poet, who spent his youth drawing maps of imaginary forests without signs of human habitation, both used maps to orient his American students to landscapes of Polish and Russian literature–even compiling a set of historical maps for National Geographic of Poland in 1982 after winning the Nobel Prize–to expand their world as he loved inhabiting old maps of the region where he lived in the Issa Valley; he recognized the rapid change of the late twentieth century as changing his tie to the California landscape to which he had reoriented himself.  It’s hard to tell the story of the transformation of the Western United States where Miłosz lived, but the interactive web maps in The Disappearing West help to encompass the scale of a too often overlooked massive collective transformation of the landscape, and the departure of its open spaces, detailing the levels of acreage lost to human development across the transformed landscape of what were once open lands.   “A sensible computer,” wrote Miłosz elsewhere, “would not neglect climate and landscape,” or landcover.


disappearaing bay area

Bay Area close-up


The hugely expanding “human footprint” across the western states has been mapped in the past, most recently to represent the concentration of the human impact on the same landscape that contains such a keen concentration of protected public lands, areas of which can still be called the most untrammeled areas in the country.  Based on work of the USGS already reported in 2008, the board human impact on the region–from urbanized areas to farms, roads and transport networks, power lines, energy prospecting and man-made wildfires revealed minimal human impact on only 5.5% of the region as a whole in the same area, which showed undeveloped lands to be increasingly vulnerable.


Indeed, areas designated protected wilderness or maintained as such across the west are both closely proximate to “developed” areas–and the most significant collective human impact mapped on the landscape was due to agriculture that often border wilderness areas, as what was measured was not the loss of open lands, but human impact on lands.




The expanse of a low human imprint is apparently large–magnified by the broad consideration of an only 19-25% human impact on the landscape as cause for rendering in green, without considering the loss of open lands.  In the interactive website, the degree of lost landscape is pared in ways that viewers can explore to examine the scale of degrees of modifications and development on open lands that have affected each of the eleven western states, rendering the scale of changes of lost open lands alone as effectively seared into the local landscapes that will not be the same.  Deep red inroads of the loss of lands mark the percentages of modification of lands betray an increased intensity of regional population growth, and suggest the increased dangers of the fragmentation of open spaces across the west–as well as in the vert same area Miłosz had retrospectively described as becoming part of what we now know as the growing extra-urban areas that have so radically changed the American West as a region to start to ken the broad scope of collective changes that have occurred on what was once virgin land over just a decade.


Modified Bay Area--2011.pngDisappearing West


Bay Area up to Sacramento modified lands.pngDisappearing West


The chief motor of the dramatic expansion of landscape modification has been population growth, feeding a thirst for subdivision of real estate expansion for housing.  While it is hard to map the consequences of the change of landscape that the loss of open spaces has brought, and how their loss qualitatively changes understandings of place, the increasing absence of open spaces revealed in largely quantitative brushstrokes Disappearing West, a  richly interactive project that has been funded by the Center for American Progress, based on the analysts of Conservation Science Partners, measuring some 105,000,000 acres transformed or “modified” by human development since 2001, using both satellite images over ten years, and multiple datasets available for ready downloading as well as zooming in to scrutinize in stunning visual rendering of deep chromatic variations.

Without providing anything like a quantitatively based assessment of the landscape’s loss, Miłosz poetically remembered the loss of the archetypical landscape of the west in Walnut Creek as a departure, noting “What happened here is a pattern for the entire planet, not that it has to look the same everywhere, but a clear pattern is developing, if only with regard to population density,” Miłosz wrote elegiacally.  Miłosz evoked his own relation to the alien land in which he had arrived, shifting from his role as external observer or tourist to witness at the turn of the millennium, and suggest the parallel of the loss of contact with the land that occurred in his life.  “It has been given to me to see in one lifetime the end of the countryside,” he wrote with some darkness, describing how that landscape of the west he loved vanished:  “So, housing tracts are scattered over a great distance, preserving relics of the countryside, but only maintained artificially:  irrigation, trees, spaces set aside for sports.”  The California landscape had grown on Miłosz, who felt increasing gratitude to its open space.  As the inhabitation of California came with a cannibalistic conversion to the needs of suburban livability, the erasure of the natural landscape seemed to reflect the loss of the rural area in which he spent part of his childhood–another landscape now irrevocably past, the scale of development of which Disappearing West starts to map.  When in Berkeley, Miłosz regularly turned to old maps of Lithuania and its forests as if to search for traces of its past inhabitants and vegetation by an imaginary magnifying glass, and compiled a set of historical maps for National Geographic of Poland in 1982, as he had regularly used maps to orient his American students to Polish and Russian literature.  The Disappearing West invites its users to navigate the traces of land modification over time.

While it is hard to map the scale of changes in a landscape across time, even equipped with a slider bar, the county-by-county mapping reveal the removal of open spaces–spaces for wandering or roaming, without built environment–in particularly compelling graphic terms by parsing the once-virgin west by the degrees of the loss of open spaces, shading the most severe losses in the darkest red, and creating a surface one might hover over and explore in local detail, to try to take stock of the extensive anthropogenic change that the landscape suffered before and during the decade 2001-11.  We can trace the continuation of the expansion of built housing on a macro-level and zoom into areas to look at it up close to try to tell the complicated narrative of the increasingly significant losses of open lands in ways that viewers might scan and drill deeper to better visualize and comprehend.


2000-11 land loss in WestDisappearing West Project


The pace of the loss of open lands across the west to a combination of urban sprawl and development–both of which proceed at a far greater pace than forestry or agriculture–is the subject of the interactive website we are invited to explore by the nonprofit Conservation Science Partners.  In The Disappearing West, data visualizations on several scales reveal a landscape that invites us to scratch beneath their surface, and invites us to explore the extent of that loss, suggesting its particular concentration in California but mapping the scale of lost landscape across the western states.  The maps we can explore and expand raise a level of percentages of open land that disappeared as the primary layer over the landscape, registering towns and monuments in a typeface of light opacity, as if one can process the changes over time, although the shifting landscape can’t ever be so clearly mapped:  despite a slider bar suggesting the loss of lands in western counties, and an interesting interactive map of the penetration of paved roads into previously roadless areas, the scope of the experiential transformation can only be considered in relation to these maps.

However, the deep reds of disappearance challenge us to take stock of the extent of the transformation of the landscape and reasons for its disappearance, concretizing the scale of the loss of lands over during that decade, and parse the losses due to urban sprawl.  The website invites us to explore the extent of that loss, suggesting its particular concentration in California but mapping the scale of lost landscape across the western states, in ways particularly of interest to relate to National Parks.  The subtraction of open lands is oddly quantified in the interactive website by percentages of loss and loss of open lands–we can, while scrolling over individual counties, parse the relative intensity of the subtracting 2,343 square miles from western wilderness–over 1,500 square miles for energy development.  But the atmosphere of place that this seems to erase even more deeply is hard to represent.

Miłosz had evoked the lost landscape of Walnut Creek as a point of departure or entry to a reverie of the spaces of his own rural childhood and his exploration of the world of insects, forests, and rural areas.  The vast transformations which he was describing occurred with such quickness that the lost of open spaces was not charted.  But the pace of the change in space and shrinking of diminished spaces across the west–of which Walnut Creek might be an odd microcosm of the western wilderness the poet might have expected to encounter–have now been charted, county-by-county, overlaying cumulative lost natural area on a lightly etched terrain, whose contours and place-names peaks through the polygons of colored in varying degrees of emergency, from yellow to deep red, as if to alert us to the changing nature of the former countryside that they describe, revealing a changing repeopling and repurposing of formerly open lands, and suggesting the regions where a past sense of place most prominently receded, and where the loss of open lands and natural spaces was most intense–without giving us, except in condensed description, why the loss of open spaces occurred or where they did occur at the greatest pace on the  broadest of scales.


States.pngDisappearing West


The Disappearing West depicts the severity of losses in a landscape in particularly vivid tones, and not only quantifies the loss of natural lands in California (785 sq miles), Colorado (525 sq miles), Wyoming (496 sq miles) and Washington (456 sq miles)–but it allows us to zoom in where it renders the losses as a scarring of the surface of the map, and maps the greatest losses of space on private land.  While described as lost “natural” areas, many are so abstract to only lead us to conjure the scale of losses they describe, but the thousands of acres lost to development in Contra Costa County from 2001 to 2011–10,661, making its rate of loss of land to development some 555.7% higher than the rates of loss of open spaces across the West, and the portion of “natural” areas lost annually 341% higher than the rest of California as a whole–reveals a massive collective conversion of open spaces driven by real estate and population rise.  In neighboring Solano County, the portion of natural areas lost each year from 2001 to 2011 were 259.3% higher than elsewhere in California, and 434.4% higher than across the West; in San Joaquin County, the loss of 8,086 acres to development in the same period were just over 100% higher than for California as a whole and 206.4% higher than the West as a whole.  All are colored carmine to note the severe degree of their loss of open space.

The transformation or conversion of formerly open spaces to extra-urban areas suggests the vast concentration of loss of open lands–a loss with clear consequences for the urban areas themselves.


Bay Area close-up.pngDisappearing West


It is hard to process or comprehend the scale of a departing western landscape of natural lands before a two-dimensional map, the expansion of urbanized and extra-urban areas across the west finds its inverse in the disappearance of open areas across western states.  The loss of open areas, warned Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, has proceeded in much of the west at a rate of a football field just over every two minutes, disrupting ecosystems and effectively creating one of the largest anthropogenic changes in our open spaces to have been witnessed in a generation:  Jewell expressed her fears that, continuing on the current trajectory, within the century “national parks and wildlife refuges will be like postage stamps of nature on a map,” and “isolated islands of conservation” visited by crowds “to catch a glimpse of our nation’s remaining wildlife and undeveloped patches of land.”  One can see as much happening, however, in the development around cities that border State and National Parks, such as Salt Lake City, in Utah–the second fastest rate of growth of urban sprawl in the nation from 2002-10–


Salt Lake City.pngDisappearing West


1337503Deseret News (2014)


or the concentration of lands lost around former wilderness, as the “urban sprawl in the forest” in North Lake Tahoe, near the Tahoe National Forest and nearby Wilderness Areas,


Tahoe National Forest and Tahoe.pngDisappearing West


tahoe parcels.pngLand Parcels near Lake Tahoe/Lake Tahoe News

or the massive transformation of the region around I-5, running up the Central Valley of California,  and bordering the Ventana Wilderness, and loss of land from Fresno to Visalia encroaching the John Muir Wilderness and Sequoia National Park that lie farther East.


Gilroy, 5 and Salinas--Ventana WIlnderness, John Muir Wilderness.pngDisappearing West


Particularly evident on the map is the massive expansion of housing in Phoenix, Arizona–


Phoenix AZ.png

Disappearing West


nelson-lang-megapolitan-8_525Doc Searls



At the same time as we are mapping and debating huge global processes of increasing complexity–climate change and warming; sea-level rise; polar melting; glacial retreat; soil subsidence–in hopes to grasp their intensity and complexity, the localization of the loss of open lands in the American West can translate to our immediate sense of landscape.  In far more concrete senses than anthropogenic changes in air quality or CO2 emissions can be depicted , much as the retreat of forested lands, the end of open spaces hits home as a massive collective change of relations to the natural world.  And if the disappearance of open spaces across the west, viewed county-by-county with apparent ease, such zooming into the local level of mapping has an inherent curiosity difficult to ignoree, as if examining a wound inflicted on the region and its ecosystem, by cataloguing the overwhelming extent of overbuilding to accommodate population growth of new real estate.  If the percentages of “modified” lands are viewed in closer detail, the deep red  intensity of overbuilding between 2001 and 2011 appears etched in quite indelible detail around the shores of the Bay Area, down to San Jose, and as well in areas east.


Bay Area-local view.pngDisappearing West


The collective scope and scale of modifications remains difficult to grasp or understand in full, but we can start to appreciate its scale in all its gory detail of the collective intrusion into what were once open spaces:  the landscape almost seems to bleed.  The calibration of the disappearance of open spaces across the region, cast in deepest red around Silicon Valley, reveals, a decade subsequent to when Miłosz wrote, helps one appreciate the large-scale loss of open space in one region of urban expansion from 2001 to 2011.  Disappearing West challenges us to process the scale of changes that have altered the landscape that peaks through an overlay that transitions from light yellow to deep red levels of loss that signal dire levels of emergency, and to imagine the changes in the ecosystem–along the shores, near Half Moon Bay, or in the valley–and for non-human inhabitants at which we can only guess.  The range of reasons can only be started to be explored in a website, or the rapidity of disappearance, but the darkening of many counties on the map shows just how drastic that loss of open space had already been and the extent of its expanse.

The success of showing the destruction of lands over time by means of a slider bar is only partly successful-in part because of the relatively late starting date of 2001, when so much change had already occurred, and the similar compromises of many regions in the western states.  But the decisively deeper reddening of the pacific northwest, the plains areas of Colorado and Utah, and much of Oregon suggests the broad scale at which the west has begun to disappear, and how the particularity of unsettled spaces–or spaces only sparingly settled with human marks–has grown.


Comparison of the Loss of Western Lands, 2001 and 2011; Disappearing West


The webmaps might spur a romantic relation to the lost spaces of the past, as Milosz felt, even as he remained unsure whether he was a conservationist against development of the parched land near where he once lived–but these visualizations offers a quite hard-headed assessment of the scale of the collective remaking a landscape, from which only open spaces of the desert seem untouched, at the same time as visible changes occur with the loss of lands around cities–from Portland and Spokane to Denver, Salt Lake City, Denver, Phoenix and Fresno.  The loss of land in each area around a city is particularly pronounced, as the incursions of developers into formerly open spaces around the city shade the terrain from crimson to carmine.  And, if one zooms into the map, so is the loss of greenspace in each.

The underlying causes for the redefining of the local landscape, which can be partly examined in terrain-view as well, range from extra-urban expansion to land explored for energy development and the impact of the growth of private forestry, whose collective footprint can only partly be quantified by the layers of loss.  A glance at the interactive map suggests a radical transformation of the West, where the departure of open and wild spaces over ten years often appears limited to National Forests or areas of actual desert.


open land lost in West.png

200-2011 open land lostThe Disappearing West


Some of the areas that Miłosz visited in the Bay Area are among the most diminished and changed–far beyond Walnut Creek and extending all the way to Sacramento, largely because of the growth of Silicon Valley, driven by ever-rising property values.  The loss of open spaces in these ten years reveals a huge acceleration of spatial change Milosz had observed over thirty-five years ago.  Yet the loss of detail must in part be conjured in the mind–although the interactive map includes not only county-by-county comparisons but more extended discussions of what is being lost in each.  It prompts the thought experiment this means for the entire Delta region will be particularly striking over the next ten–and raises questions of its sustainability.  The relative ecological opacity of the overlays of counties’ relative loss of open land is not nearly as subtle as the poet’s descriptions of the local landscape, or its fauna, but it provides a starting point to take stock of the widespread effects of such an expansion of the built landscape.


disappearaing bay area.pngThe Disappearing West


The loss in much of the regions near to urban areas was particularly drastic, if the loss of open spaces across the state suggests a radically shrinking sense of unsettled areas of wildlife, with deep consequences.  The contraction of open spaces around Seattle from Bainbridge Island to Spokane suggests a huge rise of settlement in what were once open areas–


Seattle:Bainbridge island:Lake Washington.pngThe Disappearing West


and the boundaries of the overbuilding around Lake Washington makes it seem as if they define the frontiers of future loss of land, but suggests significant effects on the estuary–


Seattlt area dissappearing nat west.pngThe Disappearing West


much as the loss of land to development that stretches to extend to Bakersfield and Irvine, with concentrations that can’t be captured by the opaque choropleths drawn on county lines, mirrors the  dramatic overbuilding of the state with an expanding exurban growth in the areas lying just beyond the cities, where the loss of land seems to have brought increasing incursions into the countryside, creating a loss of open land at a rapid pace.


LA area Bakersfield.pngDisappearing West


Such broad changes in the American West suggest a loss of open spaces of long-lasting effects, with a rapid pace of extra-urban growth that has changed many areas abutting national parks.  And despite some clamor as to the protection of an increasing amount of western lands in the designation of new National Monuments in the California desert, from the San Bernardino National Forest to the Mojave Trails National Monument along Route 66 to land near Joshua Tree National Park, and despite opposition to “unwarranted” executive actions, the use of the Antiquities Act to link lands already protected creates something of bulwark against the almost inevitable expansion of extra-urban areas.


Disappearing WThe Disappearing West


But the deep ways in which local projects of energy development impact the environment of many western states such as Colorado and Wyoming, as highlighted in a recent article from High Country Times, can be more immediately viewed by contrasting what seem Google Earth views of the terrain over the decade–in a split view feature–that reveal the increased number of roads, exploratory settlements, and other developments that have so impacted the very landscape of the American West to increase calls from radical groups such as the Sagebrush rebels demand for a local transfer of federal lands.


Split View, RifleEnergy Development around Rifle, Colorado, from split-screen view in Disappearing West


Undergirding this huge change in space is not only ever-accelerating projects of housing construction and development.  The loss of landscape seems driven by increased access what was virgin wilderness that a growing network of transportation allowed, as greatly modified transit networks encouraged expansion of extra-urban areas with few gaps–and encouraged an expansion of infrastructure on the edges of cities’ expanding metropolitan areas, from Phoenix to Boulder to Denver, increasing the loss of open areas by a third in Colorado and Wyoming over the same period of ten years–indeed a comparative viewing or urban areas and led formerly low-density areas, like Colorado Springs or Rifle, Colorado to be redefined by rapidly expanding urban sprawl, as timber harvests on private lands in Oregon have changed the forested landscape near the Willamette National Forest.


Transit Networks.pngDisappearing West


The web maps most distinctively allowost strikingly, one can view individual regions split-screen, to compare the impact of extra-urban growth near cities, forestry in the north-west on private lands, and even the decline of urban parks.  The maps can only partly comprehend the fragmentation created by a growing network of roads where none existed previously, roads that increasingly reach across the landscape to create a sense of the ubiquity of human development.

The large scale and broad purview of the Disappearing West website are limited by their time scale–much devastation of the landscapes preceded 2000, of course.  The county-by-county layering of data is not sufficiently fine-grains for reasonable appreciation of the effects of such expansive scales of building on watersheds, rivers, and specific environments or ecologies.  The expansion of the network of roads and electric energy is not able to be navigated by a handy slider bar.  But the maps help us to take stock of rapid changes in its built environment, taking a stab at visualizing the scale of current expansion of extra-urban areas across the west and the landscape that is being quickly lost.










Filed under American West, data visualization, ecological disasters, environmental geography, environmental history, Geographical Imaginaries, greenspace, human geography, land management, Mapping Wilderness, open data, virgin west, webmaps, Wester United States

The Many Other Flints Out There

The increased appearance of lead in the water supplies of residents in Flint, MI set up an alarm about the open nature of data on water quality, and raise questions about how maps can best embody problems of water pollution that seem poised to plague the twenty-first century.  Maps are successful tools to translate unwieldly abstractions to terms to images we can  comprehend–quite complex multi-causational concepts that range from climate change to mass extinction to El Niño to world pollution and our carbon “footprint” are suddenly able to be analyzed and discussed, if not acted upon.  As well as orient us to a physical space, such maps comprehend uncertainties as climate change in graphic terms, and elegantly materialize streams of big data in fixed form, which seem underscore the complexity of our current environments.  By embodying an individual image able to capture and synthesize temporal differences of temperature across space, they focus attention on otherwise ungraspable global issues in spatial terms, by knitting the consequences of multiple causation into coherent or at least persuasive form.  But can the slippery nature of the flow of water, and the sites of its potential pollution, be effectively mapped?

In mapping “Priority Watersheds for Protection of Water Quality,” Robert L. Kellogg of the Water Conservation Services sought to do so.  Kellogg amassed a range of what would now be called big data to create a chorography of the nation that suggested how what was then Big Agra threatened to pollute some of the largest watersheds in America, to provide a “map” of their relative vulnerability.  The range of chemicals humans had introduced into the local environment, according to the Natural Resources Inventory provided a baseline of the chemicals introduced in croplands–from nitrogen from fertilizers to pounds of pesticides used–that potentially endangered local watersheds–with the result that most all of the top 400 watersheds in the country were potentially endangered.



The chart is so filled with potentially polluted watersheds to raise the question of how quickly #NextFlint–already used in protesting the Dakota Pipeline, Indian Point, lead abatement projects, and wastewater systems, but no doubt a prominent future hashtag– arrive on Twitter.   It is almost not that helpful that Kellogg broke his distribution into risks of fertilizer runoff from fields of corn, barley, cotton, wheat and sorghum–


Fertilizer Vulnerability 1997


and pesticide leeching from fields of corn, wheat, sorghum, cotton, barley, and rice–


Potential Pesticide Risk.png


since the map paints a picture of considerable risk, but one difficult to drill down into.

And although groundwater is an important source of drinking water for many, risk of pollution is notoriously difficult to tie to drinking water in a quantitative manner.  Yet the deep discolorations of the broader chorography suggest the delicate nature of our water safety because of widespread anthropogenic alterations of the agrarian environment, which almost make it difficult to distinguish nature and culture.

Variations in local water quality are far more slippery to grasp or chart with certitude–not only because of its relative nature but because of the multiplicity of anthropogenic sources of pollution used n an anthropocene world, as not only sediments, but the points at which heavy metals and carcinogens might more easily enter drinking water supplies.  It’s far more likely that the water supplies in Flint, MI–where pollution went undetected for months after a switch in water supplies precipitated the leeching of high lead-levels from pipes polluted drinking water for many of the city’s residents–is less an anomaly of poor maintenance than a case that will recur.  For Flint may provide a new standard by which the ongoing contamination of drinking water from old pipes is concealed, unmonitored, and played down by local officials, in ways that a more immediate mapping of sources of water contamination may prevent–and serve to monitor any changes in water quality.  While there is less precedent for such mapping, the regular mapping and measuring water quality may provide the only way that we can take stock–and embody–the fragile quality of clean water that leaves our cities’ taps.

If most maps of water that are issued by the government and monitored by the United States Geographical Service take stock of freshwater rivers and groundwater quality, the vast amounts of the water with which most interact arrive through pipes, filtered finished, or otherwise treated in man-made structures before it arrives in our taps.  The quality of water supplies that circulate in urban areas is particularly to map–although we map the routes of water’s delivery and the system of pipes that transport water to residences, the water that arrives for domestic or industrial use is necessary but challenging to track independently from potential sites of contamination.




The multiplication of anthropogenic effects on water supplies proves more than challenging to synthesize, let alone to gain permission to publish.  This is not only because of the difficulty of mapping the paths of water’s flow, or the varied speeds at which water moves from different sources, or even intersects with pollutants such as run-off or industrial waste.  In ways that go far beyond mapping the pathways of water’s flow, coordinating data about where ground water supplies intersect with contaminants especially frustrate representation,  if not synthesis, in anything like a cohere system.  They are especially difficult to embody in a compelling map.  As familiar maps of air pollution, serious difficulties arise in assembling infuriation from multiple sources because of the falsification of self-reported data.  But expanding of sites of potential pollutants makes real-time data difficult to interpret, understand, or process.  Indeed, the combination of anthropogenic and biogenic effects are difficult to envision or even ascertain.   So complicated are the multiple environmental potential vectors of contamination over space to conceive and to express within a single cartographical form, indeed, one must juggle them in multiple maps, greatly complicated calculations of risk, or water purity.

This post takes a stab at suggesting the difficulty of tracking water safety with needed transparency at the same time as the number potentials sources of pollutants and contamination–not all of which are clearly or entirely anthropogenic–continue to escalate.   As we still struggle to come to terms with the Flint, MI disaster, it seems important to wrestle with the possible vectors of changes in drinking water quality before doing so in later sections of this post, after the first two sections review the challenges of directing attention to water-quality in a series of online interactive maps from the National American Water-Quality Assessment of rivers and streams developed by USGS.


1.  The multiple pathways and courses by which water arrives from rivers, streams, rainfall and aquifers are not the prime obstacles to map water quality.  Even without accounting for finished water, the increased multiplication of possible sites for its contamination by toxins are difficult to render or make clear with the desired transparency.  And it would be good to remember that a large share of the country, geographically speaking, still depends directly or indirectly on surface-water from rivers or streams, with 90% shade dark blue:


Percent pop getting some drinking water directly or indirectly from streams.pngPercentages of people whose drinking water comes directly or indirectly from rivers or streams


The static nature of even a real-time tracking of surface water quality is oddly removed from the fluid nature of water, if based on the limits of data collection:  in the set of USGS maps below, a dense scattering of inverted triangles in various stages of alerts collect local variations in levels of water temperature in a single frame of reference oddly removed from water flow.  Interactive maps in USGS WaterWatch on streamflow conditions collect points of data in a series of pointillist snapshots, keyed across a broad spectrum, that invites us to zoom into states and localities; they allow the viewer to hover over localities to survey the temperature of the national waters to tap real-time data compiled at testing sites;  we can click to access more legible real-time data in individual states.  Most often, these maps track the status of groundwater as an important national good, using local monitoring stations in order to reveal any possible surprises or signs of disturbance.

The level of access to such information serves to create an effective illusion of comprehensiveness and of transparency, augmented by its real-time data.  But does the symbolic coherence of such a tallying of data in a convincing map of the lower forty-eight obscure lacuna–from absences in states such as Nebraska or Vermont, almost blank, and are the reasons for surface-temperature change not rooted in local temperatures?  The real-time mapping of surface water temperatures collate meteorological conditions that affect surface water in ways that raise interesting questions of anomalies in surface water temperatures that might be assembled with other variables to create a comprehensive picture of the characteristics of the nation’s groundwater from its individual snapshots, to contribute to a record of its safety.


Temperature CUSGS WaterWatch (click link for real-time readings)


Such a sense of comprehensiveness is communicated best by hovering over regions, and driving down into states, to more closely examine specific instances of water quality by different criteria. But the looming question of how to embody their coherence in more convincing ways for the viewer might be left as open questions for future data visualization.

Several other maps help us to consider such questions better.  The data points of real-time local levels of nitrates in surface water–albeit strikingly filled with startling blank spots and lacuna, that advertise its selectivity in agricultural regions–is striking despite the quite limited picture of water pollution it offers, due to constraints of available data feeds.



USGS WaterQualityWatch, Nitrates (click link for real time readings)


Both are difficult as a way to grasp or process as a coherent system of flow, oddly.  For despite the usefulness to explore as repositories of data and the huge amount of data they serve to process from testing sites across the nation to a wide audience.  They raise questions of how such information might be better embodied in more effective ways, but do not even try to show water’s local flow.

Such questions seem return when we move to discharge–water-flow–although the effects of obstruction of water are clearly anthropogenic in character. Records of national distribution of real-time discharge remain compelling to navigate across drainage areas are compelling, inviting us to hover over the dot-like distribution of levels of discharge that enter surface water, whose rainbow-like spectrum note divergences from “normal” levels.  Yet if the variations in discharge suggest differences in water’s obstruction, it indicates the huge impact humans and man-made structures exert on water’s flow.



USGS WaterQualityWatch–Discharge (click link for real-time readings)


The wonderfully informative sequence of interactive USGS charts cannot help but raise questions about what alternate real-time measurements–in addition to pH and turbulence–might be collated on open-access servers in different ways for new audiences, moreover, and how the notion about open data about water supplies might be expanded to fit current needs.  For in an era of increasing water scarcity, the servers on which open data about water quality lie might be developed in far more dynamic ways.

The rest of this post might be read as an extended reflection on that question.  An early illustration of the questions that the National Water Quality Assessment rain for this blogger is captured by a compelling image of levels of nitrates in the watershed of the Mississippi–a subject on which I’ve written earlier.  The nitrate loading of larger rivers in the United States is evident in a current USGS map of annual loading of nitrates entering the Mississippi River from its tributaries of 2014, comparable to previous years, which more clearly represents the anthropogenic impact on water quality of different watersheds–even if one wishes one could drill down more, or examine the arrival of other pollutants.  But the map’s use is particularly significant for what it tells us about the ways farmlands increasingly intersect with water quality.


annual load of nitrates, 2014



Despite difficulties in a symbology sufficient to track water’s fluid paths nationwide, the intersection of water with potential sites of contamination which have so broadly proliferated in the modern world to imperil drinking supplies that repeated remapping cannot in itself resolve.  We can usefully model hydrologic flows from data points, but the intersection of anthropogenic and biologic and environmental contaminants demand more creative maps–as do the courses along which water flows in major rivers of the lower 48 contiguous states, scaled by average flow and sized in proportion to data gained from “gage-adjusted flow,” creating an organic map of discharge based on the National Hydrographic Database, NHDPlus v2.  Can we better track how such water picks up contaminants, mineral content, as it moves through underground paths or joins agricultural runoff, and, if so, how might such information might be better embodied a perhaps more effective way in a national database?

american_rivers_gage_adjusted-1024x853American Rivers: A Graphic Pacific Institute/prepared by Matthew Heberger (2013)


2.  The maps raise questions of how to represent the relation of water to its environment.  The question might be better expressed by earlier attempts to classify comprehensive records of rivers, waterfalls and global topography, comprehended entirely through their distance or size–if only to consider what information might be most effectively integrated within its representation of the surface water used in daily life, before we move to the drinking water provided by water-finishing stations.  For the interest in mapping water was long inseparable form its embodiment in rivers, streams, and lakes, without any possibility or idea of encoding data about its quality on such massive scale as is necessitated by our water supplies.

Indeed, while rivers were long mapped as disembodied courses, in the below map of the world’s rivers, contains, and waterfalls, the transit of fluvial waters is almost quaintly isolated as an ineffective model for mapping the transit of water in the modern world to modern eyes, isolated as it is from any environmental context or relation to their physical surroundings.  In ways that seem inconceivable given the premium that maps of water now place on environmental concerns, the discreet pathways of each river is abstracted from their environmental map, and water is mapped in this famous example of synthetic maps as an elegant visual compendium  of knowledge, translating discreet mountains, rivers, glaciers, and indeed waterfalls to a coherent pictorial fictional landscape, whose coherence exists in isolation from an ecosystem.  The  compression of comparative data as an inviting landscape suggest a pristine world we have lost in the age of the anthropocene.


bulla and fontana.pngBulla and Fontana, 1828


If the viewer of such a map seems addressed as a spectator of wonders, the popular genre of a geographical pastiche aims to dominate nature by exact measurements, assembling a world not yet out of balance in a pictorial pastiche whose frame of reference can be fixed and includes only small if significant references to human presence.  A similarly unthinkable quarantining of the course of the river from immediate surroundings was continued in the “ribbon-maps” of the Mississippi, which Coloney and Fairchilds in 1866 patented as designs following the course of water, as if it were a Trip-Tik or highway:


Strip Map Ribbon of River




Today, by contrast, the variation of local levels of contamination are so great so as to be difficult–if not impossible–to define save by possible chemical and non-chemical contaminants of different levels of consequence.  But the USGS maps above raise questions of what data we openly register about water quality.  Assessment depends on tracking the presence of possible pollutants as well as finishing agents in hopes to establish some broader index of what might be accepted as “water quality,” although the criteria or algorithm for arriving at such a standard has been widely contested–creating multiple uncertainties for how a map of water quality might be credibly assembled.

Different water quality standards not only exist in different states depending on how that water is used, but drinking water standards not only vary widely but are expressed as targets or guidelines, rather than reflections of actuality–and still differ more broadly among nations in terms of levels of mineral substances, pollutants or bacterial counts.


Drinking water Contaminants


There is limited data that such maps reveal about what drinking water–the often finished water with which we daily interact.  If drinking water is far more open to far more vectors of contamination, as the case of Flint, MI has reminded us, and levels of finishing to which drinking water is subject, it is striking how much of the nation is dependent on .  But this initial survey raises questions of what sorts of coherence can exist in maps of water quality, and indeed the difficulty of cartographical selectivity that one brings to any water map.

Even though water quality assessments are often incomplete, natural and man-made contaminants entering surface water complicates tracking pollutants and potential carcinogens, particularly as a growing range of pollutants that enter groundwater supplies.   The dense risks of sites of potential water pollution across the country–mapped by Alex Parks to assess “drinking water safety” in 2015 reveals a country crowded by sources of major pollutant discharge by orange circles–indeed almost obscure the division of counties into quartiles shaded from blue to deep violet.  Radical contrasts in Parks’ index of “water safety” offers a bird’s eye view of steep differences in groundwater purity across the country, distinct from the density of pollutants’ discharge.


Alex Parks' drinking water quality.png

legend drinking safetyAlex Parks, ESRI Community Commons


The map bears further exploration around the region of the Great Lakes for the patchwork of drinking water “safety”, scaled from deep blue (top 25%) to violet (bottom 25%):


patchwork of drinking water.pngAlex Parks, ESRI Community Commons


The complication of entries of pollutants into groundwater is a rough if telling shorthand of the huge differences in water quality across the lower forty-eight–especially around the Great Lakes.


Great Lakes.pngAlex Parks, ESRI Community Maps


The discrepancies in water quality across the United States that Parks calculates are provisionally created from EPA data, in a public health time-bomb waiting to explode with increased water scarcity in coming years–as it already has in Flint’s drinking water.


3.  The dangerous levels of the neurotoxin lead found in drinking water in Flint, MI created an immediate sense of the increasing contingency of drinking water supplies.  Ever since the crisis was precipitated by the switch in Flint to the water of the Flint River in April 2014, in a flawed hope to save money, we have been collectively scrambling for a way to comprehend the scale of the human disaster and the levels of human irresponsibility or failure to adequately track water quality–and indeed the reasons for the apparent readiness to suppress or conceal questions about water quality within the city, in the face of growing questions.

The very difficulty of pressing criminal charges by Michigan’s attorney general, beyond felonies of misconduct for concealing evidence, misleading regulatory officials about water-quality, and tampering with evidence of lead levels in water quality.   While the individuals in question were responsible for such monitoring, the delegation of responsibility to Stephen Bush and Michael Prisby of the Michigan Department of Water Quality for misleading local authorities goes little to remedy the terrible situation or the comprehension of criminal negligence that led lead to leach for so long into drinking water of Flint’s citizens,introducing toxins in their bodies with life-long consequences.  The inability to comprehend even the consequences of chronic health difficulties among those exposed regularly to contaminated water are frustrating in the difficulty to remedy any of this exposure–save, perhaps, not insignificantly, depression and stress, and a continuing panicked level of continued concern and terror.  The expansion of potential and needed local interventions suggests the difficulty to capture its ongoing toll.  (The $5 million currently on the table allotted to cover the costs of mental health needs in Flint barely cover ongoing depression, guilt and anxiety.)

The failure to treat the water after the switch to a different source of water revealed the manifold possibilities for neurotoxins entering drinking water with unmonitored ease in a truly nightmarish way, raising the health care costs of Flint residents and risking compromise of mental health among the 9,000 children six years of age and lower who were exposed to levels of lead in drinking water for over one year.  The outright deception of tracing the public water supplies in Flint–a deception the extended from the failure to treat the new water supplies funneled from Flint’s river to criminal failure to administer administer trustworthy tests of local water-quality in the city that would reveal a cross-section of actual water supplies for allegedly “safe” levels of lead–and even a fraudulent design to guarantee lower lead levels from tap water by suggesting residents run their water for several minutes to “flush” residual contaminants leached from pipes.


Flint Water

AP Photo/Carlos Osorio


But the selective testing used a spatial knowledge new pipe lain in the city to obscure the effects of poor water finishing.  The deception of skewing tests concealed feared or potential levels of lead in Flint’s water–and an insistence on making them appear to be safe–perhaps more criminal than the egregious negligence of not adequately treating the water in itself.  But the two are cases of the sloppy management of the provision of water, raising deep concerns of the levels of commitment and adequate oversight of domestic water not only in Flint but across the country.  Indeed, the suspiciously repeated testing of water quality in areas of new water mains to generate low lead levels massaged the statistics to conceal effects of potential negligence in not initially testing lead levels in water that actually far exceeded federal standards to suggest an inadequate monitoring to prevent the dangers of high lead levels from reaching homes.  Was this sort of negligence specific to Flint, a poorer suburb or city in Michigan,  or does it reveal a disconnect between the testing of water and the responsibility for poor judgment in switching water supplies without considering possible costs?

The case of Flint compellingly illustrates the lack of adequate local oversight, and indeed intransigence of the City Emergency Manager in addressing local concerns, adopting recommendations of health experts or scientists about blood lead levels–and indeed their timely reporting and analysis.  But it also embodies the distribution of bad water in America in compelling ways, focussed on the poorer areas of cities with older pipes.  And the mapping of blood lead levels (BLL’s) in the poorer suburb presents cases of the mismanagement of water supplies:  if we pay, in the United States and other countries, for the finishing of drinking water, the poor management of processed water in residential neighborhoods suggests a lack of adequate oversight not only for disadvantaged groups,  but the potential poor management and oversight of local water supplies or the adequate treatment of water-sources for lead pipes. Flint raises questions of the analysis of aggregate data regarding children’s blood lead levels, and indeed of the adequate control and measurement of children’s blood lead levels and exposure through water and other potential vectors of contamination nation-wide.

The tragedy of Flint, MI also raises questions about the lack of information about lead levels in water–complicated by the varied standards employed by different states–needed to better understand how many Flint’s there actually are out there, whose water quality remains to be mapped.  For if maps can effectively embody the different levels of exposure to lead from environmental sources or water pollutants, the counts of lead in water is particularly difficult to measure or map.


4.  Can we better embody the risks posed by the increased compromising of drinking water across the nation?  The problem reflects not only the increasing man-made effects of lead in built environments, but the problems of assessing and juggling the multiple vectors by which carcinogens and other debilitating toxins may increasingly enter drinking water.

We learned ten years ago that over half of the streams in the United States don’t support healthy populations of aquatic life in the lower forty-eight states from the NRSA, with high and rising levels of nitrogen and phosphorous widespread, although the data is not widely mapped and embodied in convincing ways and the presence of phosphorous is generally declining:  yet over 13,000 miles of rivers have high enough levels of neurotoxins as mercury to contaminate fish, and oxygen depletion due to nitrogen and phosphorous induced algal blooms is at risk in two out of five river and stream miles; almost half of the biological conditions in rivers and streams are far beyond or approach poor, according to the EPA’s National Rivers and Streams Assessment, which in 2013 rated 55% of 25,000 samples from 2,000 waterways to be “poor” in quality given their high levels of agricultural runoff–and some 40% to have unhealthily high levels of phosphorous–a worsening from 2004.  In its snapshot of the National Biological Condition, just slightly over a fifth of the nation’s streams were considered in”good biological condition;” the picture is not good, particularly in the Temperate Plains, Northern Appalachians, and Upper Midwest, according to the EPA’s National Rivers and Streams Assessment of 2014–


NBConditionEPA/NRSA (2014)


and the status of “wadable streams” across the country was poor, particularly in much of the eastern third of the United States in 2004, when significantly less of the national Biological Condition of stream-water was judged poor–although over two-fifths–and less than a third were judged to be “good” for biological life.



EPA, Water and Stream Assessment (2004)


While we discount the presence of microbiological organisms in the water, whose quality was judged by the Macroinvertabrate Multimetric Index (MMI), the poor biological condition in the northeastern Eastern United States–where poor was found in almost two-thirds of streams–suggests the age of only drinking filtered water is upon us.  The considerable uncertainty of the quality of much of the water in rivers and streams raises steep questions.  It is likely to enter food supplies, if it is not difficult to keep out of finished drinking water that arrives in residential taps by filtration.

The distribution of wastewater treatment varies widely worldwide–


Ration of Wastewater treatment

GRID-Arendal, 2008, uploaded 2012


–as does the filtration of finished water, but the treatment of water in industrialized regions is necessitated by the range of pollutants introduced into water supplies.


wastewater treatment package plants, small and large.png


5. The specific case of the presence of chemical quality of Flint’s water has an immediacy that larger surveys lack, abstracted as they are from actual localities and water quality for consumers.  And it integrates any map of water quality with the possible failures of human decisions of monitoring and testing for water quality.  Indeed, the case of Flint, MI is so chilling because its local detail paint a picture of maladministration and repeated deception of a community at stunning costs.  The scope of the disastrous effects of shifting water sources indeed  only came to light because the continued clamoring for attention of local residents was able to attract laboratory testing beyond the local Health and Human Services, even after questions were raised by the appearance of Flint’s tap water, which residents were repeatedly assured was safe to drink–despite its appearance.


Roosevelt Mitchell.pngRoosevelt Mitchell


Joyce Zhu:Flint Water Zhu/


The painful narrative of the failure to maintain adequate oversight over water quality in the city that–the failure to administer or adequately ensure the safety of Flint’s drinking water utilities–raises questions of public health safety of deeply national import.  Can they be better resolved by better maps?  The absence of open data about water contamination–and clear mapping of blood levels of lead for children across America–raises deep questions of public health monitoring across much of the United States.

The vivid presence of rusty water Flint raises clear questions about human decisions to channel water from a local river running through the city long avoided as a source of potable water and of the ability to monitor –but it also raises questions about how better to map the presence of odorless, tasteless contaminants that affect much drinking water in the United States.  Yet the absence of open data on exposure to lead in drinking water is difficult to create, if only because of the lack of open data for most states–only twenty-six out of fifty provide data to the CDC, creating a limited map for Sarah Frostenson, since CDC doest require uniformity.  But the data that is reported is sufficiently alarming in the high lead levels its shows in much of the country–CDC doesn’t require uniformity–most specifically in the northeast, an apparent time-bomb seems to have been created for high blood-levels of lead in children, despite the different metrics that each state uses to detect lead exposure–and the dramatically differing numbers of children tested in each county for lead poisoning that an interactive version of the below map reveals, in many places approaching or exceeding the ten micrograms per deciliter that the CDC now deems of significant harm–a metric downgraded from the far higher amounts tolerated in the 1970s, leading to huge variances in the limits that individual states now retain–or the considerable average 3.1 micrograms/deciliter to which residents of Flint were exposed.  The high exposure rate of over five micrograms almost reached 1%–an inexcusably high rate–in many older industrial parts of the nation.


states recoridng levels of led in children's blood

Sarah Frostenson/VOX–see interactive version here


The notable concentration of blood levels of lead found in children in the northeast and along the Mississippi is alarming–and much of the nation simply lacks adequate reported data on blood levels.  Indeed, the shifting threshold of safety that the United States government has recognized as able to reach 30 μg/dL during the 1970s, then lowered to 25, then 15, and finally 10 for the CDC, although the standard consensus is closer to 5 μg/dL.  It’s recognized that no “safe” concentration of lead in blood exists, and that the effects of any absorption of lead are irreversible, the blood lead levels for children  as low as 2 μg/dL can compromise mental aptitude.  Yet it’s estimated that some 500,000 children living in the US between  1 and 5 years of age have blood lead levels above the 5 μg/dL standard.

The absence of accurate open data on water quality and blood lead levels raises serious questions of national governance and responsibility, as pressing as the difficulties of the management of water supplies in Flint, despite the clear grievances of Flint families, and the clear absence of oversight and local suppression of evidence in Flint.  The more comprehensive mapping of risk for exposure, based on poverty levels and houses’ ages, as well as on an aging infrastructure, recently tabulated according to a methodology developed by Washington State’s Dept. of Public Health and Rad Cunningham, if not based on medical testing of lead-levels in blood, provides a terrifying glimpse of the potentials of lead poisoning nation-wide that serves as a needed wake-up call–even if the map does not record actual cases of lead poisoning.




While not based on blood levels, the map fills an absence of information about water-purity and raises questions about monitoring of water safety from environmental dangers of built environments–and hence raises the highest risks for areas around older cities, in the Midwest and East Coast alike.  As Frostenson noted, “high-risk scores don’t correlate perfectly with an individual’s chance of exposure” with certitude, and many “kids who live in the high-risk areas who might be just fine — they might live in a brand new house, for example” but there are substantially increased  risks of coming into contact with lead in aging infrastructures of urban environments such as  Chicago, New York, Newark, Los Angeles, and Miami.










But by calculating health risk only in terms of aging infrastructure and buildings, have we  stacked the cards against urban environments by the metrics of environmental influences, and paid less attention to the conduits and exogenic pollutants that enter drinking water?

Although researchers had not anticipated such sustained environmental levels of exposure, the case of Flint remains particularly compelling both for its scale of negligence the questions in raises about the possible effects of aging infrastructures on water supplies.  The CDC estimates that nationwide 535,000 children ages 1 through 5 suffer from notable degrees of lead poisoning, and the levels of neurotoxins as lead in drinking water in houses, and in Detroit’s west side, a study found one-fifth of the children show lead poisoning in their blood, from city or home pipes, if not from the water source.  If the flaking paint introduced lead into local environment and contributes to high blood lead levels in over 24 million homes in America, the distribution of such dangerous neurotoxins in domestic lead pipes, inadequately treated water, and water delivery systems is challenging to correlate to blood tests–indeed, tests measure only lead exposure that have occurred in the past thirty days, rather than the lead that has settled in the brain, soft tissue, and bones of the human body–or mapped in compelling ways.  The carcinogen is quickly absorbed in the body to raise questions of how quickly the screening of individual subjects.  And the increased vulnerability to the absorption of lead to cognition in young subjects, and difficulties associated with pre-term pregnancy in pregnant women, suggest the variations in how lead levels affect the population at large.  And although one can use blood kits to monitor local populations, the potential promise of open data on the presence of lead in water systems, if only a partial measure of the contamination of lead in home pipes, provides a macromap of the potentials of lead exposure as well as an alarm for the possibility of irreversible harm–as well as the considerable anguish about residents’ collective exposure to high levels of ingested lead, a and their concern for having been needlessly exposed to neurotoxins.

The narrative of the continued increased lead levels in residential water in Flint places responsibility squarely on local authorities.  The problems of preventing future contamination of local or regional supplies of drinking water rest in questions of responsibility–and indeed liability–for guaranteeing public provision of safe water, with low levels of metals and industrial waste, and even naturally occurring contaminants, and suggest a sad future of the nation’s water supply.  The presence of unsafe levels of lead in local children’s blood–even after evidence of the levels of lead at risky levels of 11 ppb in Flint’s water from January-June, 2015 were learned to have existed–first validated public  state intervention in the local water supplies from last October 1, although the water was not reconnected to Detroit until mid-month.  The very words Flint’s residents use to convey distrust in tap-water–“lead water“–reveals a wariness of public authorities in drinking water, or water for showering, dishwashing or laundry that suggests a frayed social compact about local water safety.

The level of lead would be judged to exceed safety levels in other countries, such as in the nearby nation of Canada, whose occurrence did not seem to necessitate informing the general public.  Such egregious lack of transparency about lead levels in drinking water, and the skepticism initially voiced about their presence until the failure to administer corrosion control in the pipes was admitted publicly, not only delayed the decision to avoid tap water for bathing or drinking or cooking, but obscured the magnitude of the issue of environmental toxins known to be linked to developmental disorders.  While lead levels can become raised due to exposure to peeling or chipped old paint, living near point sources of environmental contamination, or working with lead, the source from Flint’s water was pronounced given low local lead levels in blood for earlier years.

Flint Journal:Jake MayFlint Journal/Jake May

The absence of clear returns on blood levels suggests a failure of government, not able to adequately monitor the safety of populations’ water supplies or inform residents in adequate fashion.

6.  The terrifying succession of events in Flint may be seen as creating a clarion call to make public water supplies’ lead content open data available in readily downloadable form meets a needed level of openness in our potentially failing utilities–and would be a needed wake up call for needed investments in older urban infrastructures.  An increased dedication to open data on water, rather than relying on municipal agencies for oversight, or imagining on how communication could be smoother between local agencies, places an onus for analyzing unfinished and finished water supplies on an open platform.  

Such a platform could allow citizens to analyze and evaluate independently and effectively prevent any irregular anomalies from being not noticed–and indeed transfer the roles of an engaged citizenry for whom results of water systems, if not local residences, are available, from tax payers whose incomes correlate to water quality.  The enormous cost of trace metals and other potential carcinogens are ones for which we all pay in the end–and the cost to society is enormous–the continued absence of transparency on water quality is inexcusable not only in the case of Flint’s bungled reaction to a steady stream of complaints about alteration in the taste, smell, and hue of the water pumped into residences over almost two years, but better materialize a problem on which there is increasing confusion–and inadequate testing, at a time of rising anger at an almost systemic failure to respond to local complaints.  

This would of course include the presence of lead in Flint’s water–so terrifying for the irreversible brain damage suffered by children exposed to drinking water with levels of lead ten times greater (or more) than the limits the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recommended for over two years.  The particular poignancy of the vulnerability of children in poorer neighborhoods–the most vulnerable, as it were, and the most defenseless–seem less a limit case than a canary in the coal mine for pervasive problems of old pipes, water treatment, and drinking water supplies.   Despite clear absence of adequate oversight, and a failure to acknowledge and act on a detected absence of corrosion controls in Flint, open data updates on water quality in real-time may be one of the few things able to restore public trust in drinking water despite the deep distrust of existing monitors of water safety.   The question of liability of Flint’s environmental disaster lay with its water manager, mayor, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and governor as well as with  EPA officials.  

The failure to respond to local knowledge of the abnormalities of the increasingly discolored and oddly smelling and tasting tap water that was commonly found in faucets in Flint’s homes, and the rashes increasingly skin on people’s skin, lies equally on the city managers who so imprudently went ahead with such a shift in water supplier without changing the additives to water supplies; the governor’s office who rejected individual complaints; and EPA authorities who discounted warnings to investigate individual claims or monitor the shift in local water suppliers, intended as a cost-cutting move that was not fully or adequately researched or monitored.  The distributed nature of liability however resulted from little transparency in lead levels:  the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality blamed old pipes, with insufficient investigation of the pipes’ stressors; the emergency manager rebuffed an offer to reconnect to Detroit’s water supply in January, 2015; the Governor’s office shunted aside the public health threat the following month; state agencies tested the water, Miguel Del Toral of the EPA realized, to underreported lead levels.

The limited adequate response to observed differences in water quality in Flint were more likely to be dismissed with concealed public awareness of levels of lead in potable water.  The recent searchable interactive visualization of lead levels across Michigan poses critical questions, indeed, of the degree to which the instance of Flint’s poor decision to divert its supplies from the Flint River was the exception.  Indeed, it doesn’t seem so, when viewed in a state-wide context, with counties shaded to reveal high levels of lead statewide that placed children at risk–whose measurements which are tabulated here.  


searchable interactive map of the state offers a start for Michigan residents to search local water qualities.  By charting the results of testing that revealed high levels of lead among children–an index of particular epidemiological value–it documents a wide distribution of lead levels that even exceed those in Flint.  Although based on a variety of tests, it suggests the possibility of multiple cities of considerably higher blood lead levels–as do early reports of potential poisoning by lead levels in water of some 5,200 homes in Ontario which have older pipes, now suggested to number in the tens of thousands, including lead pipes in some 34,000 city-owned connections out of 500,000.  Indeed, while most American cities have budgeted for a replacement cycle of pipes of 300 years, according to the National Association of Water Companies, the current estimate cuts that back to 95, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.  

Is a huge problem of possible future sources of contamination looming on the horizon, recalling the lead poisoning from ancient aqueducts long hypothesized to be tied to the Fall of Rome?   Despite debate, the ill effects of lead were noted by engineers as far back as Vitruvius, who recommended the use of earthen pipes, rather than lead pipes, which he deemed not only “injurious to the human system,” in domestic homes; Vitruvius remembered the “pallid color” of those working in lead, concluding that the substance was sufficiently “pernicious, there can be no doubt that itself cannot be a wholesome body.”  Recent engineers have taken time to concur.  The high occurrence of lead leeching from pipes into drinking water illustrate a problem not limited to the United States, whatever slim consolation that brings.  But if some 13% of households in Toronto sampled in a Residential Lead Testing program revealed high blood lead levels exceeding the recommended ten parts per billion (10 ppb), the level lies one-third below the accepted threshold that the EPA has suggested to be safe in the United States.  

7.  The problem lies largely in the elephant in the room of aging household pipes–40,000 homes in Toronto have lead pipes–as do most cities whose water systems were installed over a hundred years ago–suggesting a common problem of urban infrastructure in Washington DC (where about half of the city’s 35,000 lead pipes were replaced, until the Great Recession of 2008), Providence RI, Greenville NC, Sebring OH, Philadelphia PA, and Chicago IL (where 900 miles of the water mains lain between 1890 and 1920 have already been replaced), among other older American cities–and has led the EPA to adjust the Lead and Copper Rule concerning replacement of lead service lines from mains to residences as of August 2015.  The cost?  It is estimated to exceed a trillion over twenty-five years by civil engineers in the ASCE, and much of that cost will probably be passed on to consumers.  In Toronto, as in other cities, this may be complicated by a reluctance to use additives that might mitigate local corrosion in urban infrastructures.  

The situation in nearby Detroit has revealed a comparably elevated percentile risk of exposure to lead paint–even if this exposure is not generated through the water.  Yet much of the city was found to lie above the 75th percentile of risk:

Led Exposure in Detroit.pngMike63Wilk/CartoDB 

Data about lead exposure in blood are far more limited, and constrained by the limited availability of data and the irregularity of blood testing:

Lead Exp in Blood.png

8.  The mapping of blood lead levels provided by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reveal widespread recurrence of public health concerns across southern Michigan, potentially tied to water supplies, betraying particular concentrations in urban or older once-urbanized areas, from Detroit to Albion to Battle Creek–although these could come from old paint and other toxins to which children were exposed.  Yet the clear localization suggests that a range of problems with older infrastructures, from the demolition of buildings to environmental traces of lead, reflect levels of toxins in urban environments.

southern Michigan.png

lead levels.png

While the story in Flint will continue to play out in national news, the many other Flints out there across the state of Michigan–and across the United States–demand to be made as immediate and concrete as possible, and will way as heavily in their huge human costs.

Although the map might be criticized by its unfair profiteering from the Flint’s disaster, whose gravity it effectively minimizes by placing in the context of the multiple sites for presence of lead in older cities and urban areas across much of Michigan, a poor context to assess the systematic failure of Flint’s “emergency manager” to assess the dangers of switching water sources for the city, and the state for not responding to local complaints about water quality, and EPA for tolerating a systematic gaming of water quality tests, the map is not only a cover for Governor Rick Snyder’s policies of crisis management:  for it points to the many vectors of lead contamination that survive in a state which we must not ignore, overwhelmed and disoriented by the scope and scale of Flint’s tragedy.

Carto db lead levels.pngMike Wilkinson/CartoDB

Yet the absence of alarm in Flint over time makes one wonder what a more careful and prominent mapping of lead levels in water might have revealed, and the action it might have prompted.  Despite the media attention to the failure of Flint’s authorities to adequately monitor water quality in cases delegating authority to emergency managers hoped to reduce local costs in areas of low tax-revenue, whose failure to manage the alternation of water supplies in adequate fashion–in this case, by continuing the addition of anti-corrosives to the new water–creating what has been described as the “rain of lead” in water from Flint’s pipes, effectively targeting citizens due to a government failure to provide them with treated water–a Federal Emergency, still waiting to be classified as the National Disaster that it is.  The range of reasons for lead poisoning that an older infrastructure creates–from paint chips in environment to lead in soil dust–creates a variety of vectors for poisoning, but indicates a problem widespread in water as well.  

Although levels for lead in blood were low for comparable urban areas, the rapid rise in lead-levels found in blood in Flint, which doubled over two years, indicated its basis in a human decision to switch water-sources–rather than an issue lying in the urban infrastructure alone.  The major difference–and this is why ZIP codes provide a poor proxy to compare the local incidence of high lead poisoning in Flint’s water–is clearly off-the-charts concentrations of lead in residences that rise far above allowed levels, and would in some cases qualify as toxic waste.  Indeed, the local levels of concentration at which samples of toxic water must be measured and ascertained means that any general readings of groundwater, finished water or reservoir water are suspect, and one demands local readings of water quality in a range of houses.  Whether this would ever be possible is worth asking, for it poses problems of extended oversight, even as it suggests the difficulty of tabulating water quality without individualized reporting of local results–given that individual buildings in close proximity may reveal quite radically different presence of lead.  In the case of Flint, the local variation of lead readings approaches ten-fold over relatively little space.


The problem was not in the water’s filters–which were performing well!–but was slowly acknowledged after exposure of a considerable spike in lead in children’s blood levels forced government officials to acknowledge the crisis after repeated insistence from local authorities that “Flint water is safe to drink.”   The lack of credence that state officials assigned local complaints about the smell, strange taste, and coloration of water supplies that were tantamount to a dismissal of their local knowledge about the very household water that had arrived in their taps from the Flint River, and led the local government only in October 2014 to issue a “boil-water advisory” to cut high levels of bacteria in the water–six months before high levels of lead were reported, and months before a local automobile plant ceased to use the local water supply in manufacturing, given its corrosive effects.  

9.  The water didn’t come form a trusty source for drinking water, but lack of local communication about its dangers suggest a weird inclination to turn the other eye.  Only by September 2015 was the corrosion of pipes identified as an issue, by which time Flint residents had been exposed to high levels of lead for almost a year and a half–they were only discouraged to use the tainted water supplies in mid-October.


Flint03.JPGFlint River, Brittany Greeson/New York Times

Would a more public mapping of water quality have clarified issues of liability, and indeed diminished the liabilities of state agencies?  

Turning the other eye to grievous issues of the disparities in urban environments and but ecologies has a long, and tragic history in America, of which Flint is the most current manifestation.  One of the greatest environmental justice issues of recent years has been the dismissal of the existence of the dangers of lead in pipes, drinking water, paint, and gasoline in poorer inner city African American and Hispanics in America.  This dismissal not only lead to a virtual acceptance of lead in 1950s America, David Rosner and Gerald Moskowitz have shown, but a failure to redress problems of urban infrastructure.  And these failures force us to realize that Flint, MI is from an outlier, but a potential eye-opener for the vectors by which environmental presence of lead has long existed in American cities.  Despite the definite failure of delegating authority to emergency managers able to circumvent city practices–as those of the addition of anti-corrosive phosphates to maintain pipes–in ways driven by consideration of tax-payers, rather than the health of citizens, open data on water would also provide a form of civic involvement in monitoring a more transparent relation to water quality of which the nation is increasingly in need.

Despite some deep skepticism for technological solutions to environmental problems, online maps provide a far more transparent basis to assess levels of environmental injustice than  available in earlier years.  The recent EPA Flint Drinking Water Response created an interactive set of maps for ready view both for lead content in drinking water and residual and trace elements of Chlorine in drinking water supplies in Flint was posted in response to the need to restore public confidence in public oversight of water supplies.  It offers the start of a  more transparent practice of instilling trust in government’s oversight of drinking water quality in our homes, in an age when the pollutants in water are being shown to be increasingly widespread and to have been irresponsibly monitored.

Lead Results Flint

Chlorine Residual Sampling FlintEPA Flint Drinking Water Response/Data Assessment Map and Screening Map

10.   As much as the levels of lead discovered in local water supplies in Flint, MI are a failure of  government, it reveals the importance of securing open data about national drinking water supplies.  Can this be achieved, and placed online in a transparent fashion available in readily downloadable form?  Such levels of openness will be needed as a counterweight to potentially failing utilities and decaying urban infrastructures.  

The danger of regular exposure to high levels of lead leached from pipes in Flint’s drinking water system has directed needed attention to the presence of lead in other cities, including Washington, D.C., by Dr. Marc Edwards, not only to the need to better heed warnings about individual water systems from other local officials–doubts were raised about Flint’s water by Miguel Del Toral in Chicago, but ignored and quashed–but by placing online the numbers of the National Water System and an overhaul of the local sampling systems that led to a systematic minimizing of lead levels in drinking water that is particularly dangerous for brain development.  The prohibitive cost of replacing lead pipes–damage to public and private water lines in Flint, MI alone are estimated in the application for federal disaster assistance at $767 million–as well as another $200 million on health costs for treating residents exposed to lead in drinking water.   At a time when fracking threatens to contaminate public water supplies, a new level of vigilance to the risks of drinking water supplies gains special urgency:  over 7,000 municipal or public water supplies are located in close proximity to fracked wells.  

But the problems of water treatment and corroded pipes within existing municipal infrastructures are perhaps far broader.  The more immediately pressing problems may detract from the dangers posed by potential pollutants from leaking pipelines or fracked wells at this point–although the story of Flint calls timely attention to the importance of securing local water supplies, as its tortured narrative of emergency response raises questions about readiness.   The story of the widespread contamination of drinking water in Flint broke, one should remember, was about a failure of openness and public communication.  It broke only after a wary resident who suspected her child to have been poisoned by lead in her home’s drinking water personally sent samples of drinking water in her home to Dr. Edwards, a researcher at Virginia Tech.  The particularly telling clue that Edwards found was the presence of a neurotoxin in Flint’s water at levels 150-fold greater than the EPA’s established threshold discovered, triggering the arrival of water-sampling kits to concerned residents in Flint who suspected increased toxicity in their water supplies, which eventually revealed the suppression of evidence of the inadequate treatment of drinking water supplies and failure to monitor tap water adequately in the city, disregarding established National Drinking Water Standards.  

The apparent disinterest of the water utility to inform all homeowners where lead levels exceed the threshold established by the EPA of 15 ppb (parts per billion) not only created a culture of deep suspicion about municipal authorities, but, after the discovery of levels exceeding 2,000 ppb, a distrust of the deep duplicity of public evaluation of tap water or evaluation of the water’s safety by agencies hired by the city as the Professional Services Industry (PSI).  Even after the city of Flint reconnected to Detroit’s water system in October, dangerously high levels of lead had invaded drinking water over a period of years.    The sample sent to Virginia Tech from one home included 158 ppb–among the highest level of lead encounter in Flint, where the 90th percentile of measured water of tested homes was only 27 ppb–still almost twice above the recommended outer limit, although others registered 5,000 ppb, levels that the EPA considers ‘toxic waste’ and others were as high as 13,000 ppb. 




The two dozen students and research scientists at Virginia Tech would spend the next year analyzing alarmingly high levels of lead contamination in local water supplies in Flint, MI that had begun after the city’s  emergency manager decided to stop purchasing treated water from Lake Huron, and to redirect water from the Flint River to urban water supplies without adequately treatment.  The water piped into local residences exposed poor residents to lead to a degree that the municipality and water manager were loath to admit.  While expedient, a less neighborly act was rarely performed.   Only the public release of complete data of children’s blood lead levels in Flint to news agencies prompted the city to switch back to Detroit water, but the pipes carrying potable water in the city’s infrastructure had already been so deeply and dangerously irrevocably compromised, in a blatant failure of public government that lead to indignant public protests, and only slowly occupied a prominent place in national news.  But blood levels provided the only recognized and confirmed indices that made it impossible not to acknowledge the piping of polluted water into Flint residences.

11.  Pronounced social inequities and inequalities can be usually lain out in graphics with immediate effects because of the sharp geographic divisions they reveal in government attention to the public good–illuminating deep discrepancies the pointedly local nature of public risk and the need for investment in water management, as well as real risks.  

From the actual levels of nitrogen pollution that fertilizer runoff creates along the Mississippi’s watershed–discussed below–to the water in the aging or corroded pipes of urban water supplies that have shed led into multiple municipalities’ drinking supplies. Yet readily accessible levels of chemicals within local water supplies that need to be made public open data have been far too often obscured, a problem demanding public acknowledgement.   Although the Government Accountability Office doubts that the EPA possesses sufficient resources or personnel to monitor compliance of drinking water systems and supplies in cities or rural areas, the degree of open gaming of the system by local officials to evade the reporting of high levels of toxic chemicals in drinking water reveals a level of duplicity and evasion with extremely steep costs for the nation’s drinking water supply.

The lack of specificity of high levels of lead in water to Flint that Mike Wilkinson prepared for readers who suspected that city authorities of Flint were alone in playing foul with the city’s water, pressed as they were with low revenues from taxes and a mandate to cut costs from Michigan’s governor, suggest that local decisions can’t be to blame for the widespread crisis in high lead levels in children’s blood across much of Michigan–it is searchable by ZIP–from 2012 to 2014 is not the easiest to search comparatively, but provides a useful start to illustrate the deep difficulties of public water nationwide.

12.  The problem of open data on national water supplies is not limited to leaded pipes, whatever risk the use of older pipes poses to drinking water.  Many of the most common contaminants in public well-water within the “top ten” are naturally occurring–including radium and radon gas, as well as naturally occurring arsenic, manganese, strontium, and boron, in addition to troubling levels of nitrates that are highest in the public well-water of agricultural areas–significant since public supply wells, if using surface water, serve an estimated 34% of the American population, even though the water is not considered “finished” or prepared for drinking.

Public wells.pngUSGS

Although many of the public wells of surface water across the nation contain considerably high levels of nitrates that far exceed levels recommended by public health authorities–especially in rural areas with a considerable presence of agriculture and Big Agra–

Nitrates in WellsPatricia Toccalino, Public Wells, USGS

–and of the especially high quantities of naturally occurring arsenic that taint many wells holding surface water for human use, often far above the recommended thresholds–


Arsenic in Wells


Toccalino and Hoople, USGS


Such a high presence of arsenic–considered by geochemist Yan Zheng the “biggest public health problem for water in the United States” and a naturally occurring but particularly stubborn taint in private wells.  Arsenic is definitely the most toxic thing we drink–it is tied to increased risks of organ malfunction and not regulated in most states.  The below point-map compiles degrees of its presence in public water supply systems on a spectrum from bright yellow and red, as befits the levels of alarm its presence raises.

The broad distribution of naturally occurring arsenic concentrations in old industrial areas as well as in California’s central valley, Idaho and Washington state is striking.  (The map is based on individual sites of wells and springs, rather than drinking water quality.)


ARSENIC concentrations usgs

USGS NAWQA Study of 3,350 ground-water samples collected 1973-2001

Many such numbers remain concealed from public knowledge, and not easily accessible; private wells, moreover, are not quantified.  Yet according to USGS findings, some one if five–20%–of domestic wells in the United States actually registered at levels of at least one established carcinogenic contaminant, from radon gas to nitrates to arsenic, or unhealthy concentrations of widely recognized carcinogens whose exact levels of danger for bodily ingestion and exposure are unknown.  (Nitrate problems of this sort are present in the same proportion of wells nationwide, in some regions up to 40%.) The many  wells with danger signs for exceeding one threshold of the presence of a known carcinogen suggest a landscape that needs to be better known–in which the exact locations of potentially “toxic well-water” remain unknown.


1 in 5


Although many of the public wells of surface water across the nation contain considerably high levels of nitrates that exist across the country in the Mississippi watershed.

Miss Basin average annual fertilizer

Nitrogen Pollution of Miss Watersheds

Nitrates in Wells.pngCeres

Another visualization of the excess of nitrate-contamination of wells destined for drinking water nation-wide is less limited to the Mississippi, but shows higher concentrations of nitrates on the East coast, as well as in corn-growing areas (South Dakota/Kansas/northern Texas) and California, and parts of Pennsylvania and Idaho).



The timeline of such increased concentrations can be epitomized to some extent by nitrates in California wells, for which a map of growing concentration of nitrates in drinking water 1950-2007 shows impact over time in domestic and municipal wells.


Groundwater in CA:Contaminated


13.  An agreement to share open data on urban public water systems is long overdue–and suggests a needed level of public oversight of drinking water supplies of which we are all in need to know. The public online posting of available data on water quality will be able to give needed coherence to threats not otherwise easily calculated or understood, and all too often easily overlooked.  And if these graphics are not designed to agitate for public opposition to actually polluted waters–and highly contaminated drinking water no less–the limited attention that the need to secure clean drinking water holds in our political culture says something about the need for better public maps to call attention to the presence of critical pollutants in public water supplies, for which there is rarely a better or more succinct or convincing form of public embodiment than in maps.

Take, for example, visualizations that direct attention to the presence of actually toxic pollutants in water–think again of Flint, MI’s terrible municipal tragedy–which essentially pose a problem of political oversight and legislative monitoring.  Taxation of menstrual products are perhaps not nearly so onerous.  The openly abject visualizations illustrate the disproportionate environmental and ambient pollution–as, say, to use a national data vis, one displaying different levels of unregulated toxins in the tap-water of major cities as in fact the product of a policy decision–much as the presence of lead in the pipes in Flint, MI, where a decision was somewhere made to cease treat the water with anti-corrosives–even after University of Michigan-Flint altered the city that it had cut off water fountains at its campus in January, 2015, and add filters to others, and GM publicly announced it had ceased using Flint water on newly machined parts from October 2014.

Current E. coli risks usually can be mapped along watersheds.  But E. coli levels in Flint’s water from 2014 indicated the difficulty of taking water from the Flint River, even if anti-corrosives were not added to water supplies that would prevent lead from leaching from city pipes–not to mention the over 280 contaminated water supplies in Michigan,including the below counties with high levels of naturally occurring arsenic–even though Michigan’s surrounded by some of the largest freshwater bodies in the world.



The intense alarming ‘red’ of poisoning echoes the instinctive sign for danger, it’s an all too common association of poisoning or peril–although the majority (about 2/3) are unregulated, there are at least 316 contaminants in the US water supply.  And although this visualization of the spread of the carcinogenic pollutant tricholoethylene that has leached into the ground and groundwater of Michigan’s Antrim County over a period of ten years, contaminating untold trillions of gallons of water in one of the largest toxic plumes in the country–the pollution from the Mount Clemens Metal Production plant is shown in a neon green that suggests its synthetic unworldliness.




14.  Flint’s environmental disaster has rightly occupied the news’ short attention span–in part because of its failure of adequate oversight, and the inexplicable lack of oversight of government agencies.  But the poisonous plumes that have entered many local water supplies have proved less compelling forms of attention–less because of poor visualization than because of the difficulty of registering their continued prevalence.

Partly, no doubt, this is caused by the huge clean-up costs associated, which few would want to assume, as well as the reluctance to admit the public relations nightmare of culpability of the significant and ongoing environmental damage done to many local water supplies.  Most gaming of public water supplies such as occurred in Flint–and which may be far more widespread than we would like to admit–suggests a deep betrayal of public trust.  And the distribution of extremely high quantities of lead in Flint’s water system–based on the results of over 4,000 freely distributed lead testing kits provided to test drinking water reveal a quite complicated distribution, likely to be due to local pipes:  even though these tests were administered  after the city had switched back to the Detroit water from Lake Huron, and measure the sources of lead poisoning to which people continue to be exposed in Flint seems difficult to determine.

While it does suggest a less disastrous image of lead poisoning, the data map also suggests with considerable detail the complexity of locating sites where lead is in danger of leaching from pipes:  the improvident decision to stop treating the water with anti-corrosives invited the opportunity for lead to leach from pipes in neighborhoods, older homes, and possible water mains in need of replacement, but no clear distribution of exposure to lead seems to appear, as the presence of lead in water merits concern at concentrations above 14 ppb for the EPA, which recommends treatment by filters to be sufficient for lead’s presence below 150 ppb:  test-kits providers randomized results and may need further follow-ups, but the distribution of select cases of a high presence of lead in clear clusters raises pressing questions of how much the addition of anti-corrosive agents can helpt, and fears of the need to replace pipe at some mains and in a clear concentration–if the disaster appears somewhat contained if still quite pronounced, it is concentrated in quite complicated clusters, to judge by the troubling local density of those violet dots.


Michigan Radio Web


Lead poisoning remains, however, by far the most common environmental risk for children in the United States of America–and has long been so.  Indeed, the serious long-term contamination of drinking water with lead in Baltimore, from 150 to 1992, in serious degrees of lead contamination to exist in some 150,000 homes; children drank water contaminated with high concentrations of lead in Baltimore City public schools for ten years, and the drinking water supplied city’s water system was awarded a failing grade in 2000-with lead, carcinogenic Haloacetic acids, and trihalomethanes in the 90th percentile of national standards, placing the city on a boil-water alert, stemming from both the lead pipes used in older houses and partly from its proximity to agricultural runoff.


15.  We often hear about possibly carcinogens in chlorine-based cleansing agents added to  drinking water–the disinfectant by-products (DPB’s) added to drinking water or Haloacetic acids (HAA’s), byproducts of chlorination in water treatment plants–which have received some limited if increased attention from the Environmental Working Group, due to their widespread nature and potentially preventable risk.  The shock that over two-thirds of the US population receives tap water with levels of pollutants introduced to combat microbial infections suggests the perils we court by introducing such potentially steep carcinogenic risks–in a world where 70% of global industrial waste is returned to water and pollutes the available drinking supply, including refrigerants and pollutants, with the result that upwards of 50% of worldwide groundwater stands at serious risk.




The color spectrums that indicate groundwater pollutants in dark reds offers an important tool for showing environmental dangers and registering high levels of danger and local levels of risk–although the acceptable levels of pollutants that appear in much water has not even yet been adequately defined.


Disinfectant Byproducts:HAA5 in LA


At a national level, similarly serious deep local disparities can be mapped to show steeply shifting levels of known but unregulated carcinogens such as Hexavalent Chromium forcefully reveal disparities to elicit public action for the inequalities implicit in local regulations.  They reveal the potential consequences of a national decision not to regulate potential carcinogens in local unfiltered drinking water–and the sharp disparities of where Hexavalent Chromium most pronouncedly appears.



Hexavalent Chromium in US Tap Water


The unevenness in drinking water quality demands multiple indices.


Drinking water Contaminants.png



Or one might well examine the visualization of steeply problematic extent of disparities in the levels of lead that has leached from physical construction materials in areas of New Orleans, including peeling bits of heavy metal paints, or gasoline and other products in the earth and dust, concentrated in inner city environments of older neighborhood in a “bulls-eye” pattern that has been tied to the use of leaded gasoline, and seems typical of most older cities where cars used leaded gas over sustained periods of time.




But even in rural areas, the presence of increased concentration of nitrates in drinking water in townships of lower-density states such as Wisconsin, seem tied to the increased use of fertilizers in farming, more than to leaded gas, although it is absent from the far northern reaches, mirroring areas of densest population and residential settlement, and most intensive use of agricultural farmlands in warmer climes.




How to map risk is never clear.  The mapping of risks of the contamination of water sources is however especially pressing, and with the multiplication of possible sources for leaching of carcinogenic chemicals and minerals into public water supplies and surface water, compiling such data in open access sources is an increasingly important issue of public health.  While the compilation of such databases is difficult and challenging, only by creating a more adequate set of interactive maps of water safety can public trust be restored in our aging infrastructures.



Filed under data visualization, drinking water, environmental law, Flint MI, public health, water safety

Mapping the Presence of Rome’s Pasts

We now map mega-regions extending beyond the former boundaries of urban entities, and which almost lack clear bounds, to reflect the actual experience of their environments more networks than sites, tracing the commute routes most experience daily, distended networks of often uninhabited paved space, that may erase historical time or the familiar palimpsestic relation to space.  When we do so, we’re less concerned with these maps as guides of habitation, so much as guides to the spatial futures:  such maps’ scope capture the order of lived space, but obscure ithe neighborhoods that once occupied space.

The material presence of the past in Rome–whose maps situate viewers not only in relation to a place, and to the city’s ancient space, by effectively immersing them in its past–attract and invite viewers to grasp physical records of the past, which remain an aspect of their particular pleasure as maps.  The sense of the monumentality of that past grew, the scope and compass of maps and their specific pleasure as excavations of the past grew–as did the challenge of comprehending that relation to a lost monumental past.

Rome’s construction has been long commemorated its civic order–first as a capital of the ancient world, later rebuilt and designed repeatedly as a new site of triumphalism and power–whose mapping posed unique problems of mapping both its spatial organization, and proposing new ways of commemorating, celebrating, and orienting viewers to its built space, in ways that created a unique pleasure in post-Renaissance maps of celebrating its order–of “re-membering” the city–and placing past patterns of habitation on view.  As much as offer a plan of space, or spatial relations, the buildings of Rome are such powerful sites of memory that most urban maps of place balance qualitative content with schematic design, offering amateur archeological searches of identification, and even spatial excavation of the layers of how space was occupied in the city, each map including echoes of the past habitation of the city’s physical plant, as if in a game of memory or amateur archeology, staking out both how a monumental urban space was built and how it revised the historical space on which it was configured.  Despite the prominence of the ancient plan of the city in its Republican and Imperial identity, efforts to create a persuasive record of ordered space in maps amp up their cognitive work, as it were, to organize the multiple temporal layers of the city’s occupation of built space–from the walls that once contained urban areas to changing footprints of the city over time.

The encompassing of such a burgeoning spectrum of spatial inhabitation is both the promise and daunting topic of maps of Rome from the Renaissance, and from the mid-eighteenth century–a proliferation of maps whose increasingly plastic design expanded the cognitive work maps did as tools to refine viewers’ relation to its pasts, in ways that reflected the mechanical possibilities to create a material record to the past.  As much as survey the forms of mapping Rome, this post is concrete in the particular pleasure of such maps of place to orient views to the city’s situation in both time and space, and the unique work maps did.

Maps of Rome are striking in their acts of balancing qualitative views of place and immersing viewers in the past fabric of the city–inviting viewers to admire the commemoration of spaces in the ancient urban polis and seat of empire and the structures built over it by Popes and government.  If Leon Battista Alberti mapped Rome’s ancient buildings in a symbolic game of imaginary excavation of the city’s monumental buildings–adopting surveying techniques that he had experimented to orient viewers to the past city that lay beneath Rome, physically present but lost to immediate memory, around 1450, the tools of persuading readers of the past city’s organization capture this spatial dialectic, a rich tradition of mapping emerged among cartographers from the Renaissance working in paper and ink returned to confront the peculiar problem of representing relations of space and time–and indeed mapping the relation between the two, as if to clarify the presence of the accumulated past by sorting out spatial relations in scaled plans, as untangling a relation between space and time, and of matter and memory:  the depiction of the “eternal city” attempts to paper over the temporal divides between eras, alternately subsuming or elucidating the historical character of different periods.

For the mapping of the city proposed and repurposed a new sense of urban character and identity:  the built landscape long presented a palimpsest of different eras, so much as to be taken as symbolic tokens of a cognitive relation to the past by the nineteenth century, when Sigmund Freud famously adopted an imagined map tracing its built structure as a model for his project of excavating the simultaneous lamination of events in human memory, but that also echo the increased use of maps not only for celebrating, commemorating, and remembering the built order of the city that challenged techniques of surveying and engraving alike, but also the function of tools of mapping to orient views to the city’s individual character:  indeed, the mapping of the city over time provided a model for personifying the city by making its past present, and remapping its eternal structure, whose power is underestimated and under appreciated when treated as akin to a new sort of picture plane, and not an act of recommemorating the city’s space.

Commemorating the identity of Rome was on the table front and center in the triumphant untangling of the past, evident in the elegantly unfurled scroll at the base of the 1748 iconographic Pianta Grande of the Nolli Map of Rome, created over a decade by surveyor and architect by means of a surveying table of his own device, celebrating not only the spatial structure of the city but the new character of the city reborn by sustained projects of papal construction:  the city’s plant is bounded by a qualitative view of the architectural projects of the pontiffs in its lower right, paired with the ancient ruins in the lower left, as if to embed its complex urban fabric building projects of recent popes–elevating what James Tice called the “dialectical relationship between buildings and their context[s]”to allow individual buildings to be read in a coherent urban plan, portray Rome’s “genius loci” as resting in  the presence of papal building projects among the city’s monuments.


Nollis map


As much as struggling to synthesize an abundance of local information of its Rome’s built structure, the map seems a gambit to create spatial continuity and uniformity in a region whose multiple temporal levels and layers the architect has synthesized in one vision for Benedict XIV, celebrating architectural projects that gave urban identity to the city from the square of the Capitoline or Campidoglio, long a seat of civic government but famously designed by Michelangelo at by the Renaissance Pope Paul III, to the buildings far more recently commissioned by Clement XII to Benedict XIV.

As much as survey the Nolli map’s contents, the online  Nolli Map allows us to unpack the extent of the new urban structure that the map celebrates, integrating its ancient and modern structure in a new coherent way:  the surveyor Nolli’s iconographic map, based on surveys of the city streets over more than a decade, used an innovative portable tool of surveying, as David Freidman has argued, provided a map that offered viewers to experience walking pathways of its individual streets, past churches, classical monuments as the Pantheon [Pantheon], palazzi, piazze, ancient ruins, alley ways and expanded thoroughfares that preserved the exact sizes of each of its streets, ancient buildings, and churches, each enumerated to allow a legibility that affirmed a united fabric of a city across historical ages in an urban form through which views could walk.  The united organic whole whose architecture synoptically described in detailed fashion did considerable cognitive work in how it afforded a clear relation to the built fabric of the city and embodied the Rome of Benedict XIV–the Second Rome, or Catholic Rome, which it situated as a new historical identity of the city.



legibility Rome



The achievement of Englightement cartography provides a striking celebration of the architectural creation of ancient and modern Rome, as well as of its own artifice.  This post takes the manner that Nolli’s Pianta Grande or Nuova Pianta di Romawhich continued to be reprinted through the nineteenth century given its beauty and unsurpassed accuracy–celebrated the achievement of architectural order eclipsing ancient Rome in its splendor and elegance, as an attempt to wrestle with the ancient past that so often seen as a standard against which to measure its present space, and which returned, in the nineteenth century, as a model of how the accumulated past haunted the present.  How the commemoration of individual buildings of the past and their integration in a material landscape haunted mappings of Rome is the subject that this post tries to survey–as the pleasures by which this visual integration of time-frames was achieved in maps.

The nagging sense of the past’s haunting of the present allowed maps of Rome, this post argues, to provide an important materialization of the continuity of the past by which Sigmund Freud would find confirmation that affirmed his sense of the role of cultural production as a basis to deny death–crucial in his formulation of the pleasure principle–as the charting of its construction was a figure for that denial as it was the paradigmatic illustration of ancient culture; the revelation of layers of Rome’s historical monuments in the subsequent maps of Rome that illustrate its archeological reconstruction–in a manner quite different from how Nolli effectively celebrated the construction of contemporary Rome within the Aurelian walls as confirmation of papal Rome’s reclaiming of Rome’s ancient grandeur in the Pianta Grande of 1748.  Unlike Nolli, Freud had a privileged relation to the ancient sites of Rome, which he “contemplated” in 1901 as a communion with the fragments of the ancient city in which he lost himself, not possible for the “Second Rome” of the Papacy or entirely for the modern Third Rome–perhaps because it jointly embodied in their condensation of a violent destruction of the ancient city even while providing testimony of its survival, albeit in ruined form, as an aesthetic unity as an embodiment, albeit fragmented, of western culture.


1.  The densely detailed urban topography that Giambattista Nolli created from sustained multiyear surveys preserved the clearest evidence of the buildings in the city’s historical center that provided, until the late nineteenth century.  Organized on magnetic north, the Grande Pianta offered the most accurate rendering of its dense habitation and architectural wealth, blending the detail of ancient monuments, giving prominence to its modern buildings to reconcile the presence of remains of the ancient ruins and pagan past.  The map that Nolli crafted for the enlightened pontiff Benedict XIV showed the city presided over by the triumphant church, resolving tensions between layers of times embodied in the city by suggesting the pontiff’s leadership of the city, illustrated by the crowing of the personified Rome by airborne angles with the papal tiara, at the base of a map depicting architectural projects of Clement XII to Benedict XIV that redesigned its ancient urban form.  The urban coherence Nolli’s sustained surveying of the city allowed provided a benchmark in mapping the continued coherence of the city’s long-inhabited space.



Nollis map.png

Nolli's Roma.png


The difficulty of preserving coherence among the layers of Rome’s past across its pagan and Christian pasts perforce wrestled with the abundance of the city’s pasts as well as its physical settlement.  Maps of all older cities suggest a resource of preserving memories that have been something of a topos of the excavation and persistence of the past.  But the repeated mapping of Rome suggest a struggle of embodying its pasts and making them present through a selective record, unique in the semantics of most maps of urban space.  The excavation of the map as a space–and how maps not only orient to spatial disposition but how their material production offer a basis for investigating built space, the emphasis on engaging the architectural construction of Rome’s ancient, medieval and modern space is compelling as a subject that has been repeatedly raised in maps, if only to sort out their relation for their readers.  For the city map serves as such a compelling way to embody the “dead” space of ancient Rome, and serve as compelling forms to visually return to the ancient world by embodying it anew.  Any map of Rome wrestle with the problem of the preservation and accommodation of the presence of historical past and wrestles with its attention to ancient precedents to make its mapping a particularly compelling exercise:  and it seems likely for this reason that Sigmund Freud imagined the parallel existence of  layers of the ancient republican, imperial, medieval, and Renaissance cities with the modern nineteenth-century city to be a model for the individual’s mental landscape.

The maps of Rome provide a repertory for the embodiment of the city as it was lived across historical ages, embodying different layers to be admired of its levels of built ancient, imperial, Christian, or Renaissance architecture, and the subterranean worlds of catacombs and crypts that lie beneath, all of which are selectively embodied in maps:  indeed, if individual engravings often embodied isolated ancient monuments of the city, the map provided a dream to embody its coherent structure before viewers’ eyes, in ways that made the mapping of Rome, in particular, so compelling as a material figuration of human memory and mental life, despite its destruction by fires, invasions, and time.  Indeed, anyone who is perusing the maps of Rome wrestles with a problem of qualitative chronological and cartographical abundance, in the sense of deciding what aspects of Rome to incorporate and embody in a map–and wrestles with the problem of embodying a city that existed across several periods, and as it exists in each one.  At one extreme, Antonio Bosio’s monumental Roma sotterranea [“Underground Rome”], engraved after his 1632 death, mapped the discovery of a wealth of evidence of early Christianity in its catacombs.  While selective in its attention, Boise’s work prominently included a synthetic map of ancient monuments in the city, locating isolated monuments among the city’s hills by situating recognizable naturalistic views of the isolated images of the Colosseum, Vatican, Castel Sant’Angelo, pyramid, Circuses in its timeless, pastoral landscape as if to wrestle with a similar question of selectivity and local abundance once again.


bosio sotteraneo in libro.png


The map “works” by gathering ancient monuments for viewers to admire, based on the 1561 multi-plate engraved map designed by the antiquarian Pirro Ligorio as the first naturalistic visual excavations of ancient Rome–but shows the monuments removed from its actual urban plan.  One might go much further:  for the map removes Rome’s monuments from the actual floods that the city had endured in 1557 and throughout the sixteenth century, and reveals the continued survival of its eternal elements as enduring in the city’s space, as if perpetually in this first mapping of the city’s palimpsestic order.  The mapping of these multiple orders in maps encouraged the delicious metaphorical treatment of the city’s built space as enduring mental furniture.


effigies antiquae roma.pngAntonio Bosio, Roma Sotterranea (1650)


The end-point of the ongoing excavation of Rome has not been reached by any means.  But the graphic re-animation of its recovered ruins, and indeed their embodiment in maps, suggest a long-term project of recovered memory–as, indeed, the observation of its pasts and the organic order of its monuments, mapped in a number of imagined maps that synthesize the apparently chaotic order of its pagan and Christian pasts, became a subject of individual formation.


2.  The mapping of Rome encapsulate a history of the cultural arguments of maps, and indeed of the culture of mapping a city’s past.  The problem was in part of crafting a selective but coherent record of such cartographic abundance, inescapably a theme in the mapping of Rome, a problem of materializing the past that would have made its maps–as well as its material presence–an object of continued fascination to Freud.  Maps of Rome challenge the viewer to assemble the abundance of Rome’s material ruins, monuments, and hybrid constellations of ancient, medieval and modern buildings, at the same time as to orient oneself to the chronological cornucopia of its built space, in ways whose experience sometimes seems to defy coherent systematization as a network, if not to inspire surrender to the eternal unpacking of the texture of its individual detail.  Indeed, the compulsion to map the past in Rome, and discern the survival of levels of its past, have defined a strain of recuperating the persistence of the past in maps, unpacking its spatial continuities and chronological discontinuities in a harmonious image whose measured surface can be easily scanned.

Maps of Rome since the Renaissance have long presented as providing a clarifying palmipsestic orientation to the past and to the deep history of built space, seeking as they do to disentangle the temporal phantasmagoria of architectural layers of the ancient city’s arena, fora, temples, and monuments against its modern neighborhoods.  For many the buildings in the early modern and contemporary maps of Rome lie at a great chronological remove in their  excavation of a densely settled space.  Even as quantitative records, their qualitative associations as an ordered image orient viewers to persisting monumental structures of the ancient city that made them evocative objects of attention and study–and indeed the observation of its organic structure as a subject of study and individual cultural formation, or bildung, in ways that increased the currency of the metaphorical treatment of maps of buildings of different ages in Rome to convey an image of the contemporaneous existence of different periods in an individual’s mental landscape–a concept crucial to Freud’s understanding of the archeological layering of human memory.

In a work ostensibly dedicated to the persistence of impulses of aggression as an effect of  from Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud famously imagined a historical reconstruction of the city that recalls nothing more than a virtual map.  In a thought experiment or flight of fancy  that surpassed the mapping technologies of his time, Freud imagined the problem of ordering the ruins of Rome in a cosycnchronous map able to show the buildings of ages spanning the Etruscans to Republican Rome to the middle ages and Renaissance, at which one could detect the overlapping structures of different periods in what he felt was the most apt image of the preservation of memories across different periods of one’s life that coexisted in an individual mind–to be excavated, no doubt, by practiced psychoanalyst.   The image is felicitous.  It captures Freud’s understanding of memory, and is emblematic of a struggle with the superabundance of qualitative information in the city’s maps.  Long fascinated by the antiquity of the forum and the monuments of the ancient city, Freud famously imagined it as a locus for the embodiment of the past, and a figure that captured the presence of individual memories in the human mind.  In an extended poetic revery probably written before 1914–but published in 1930, Freud fancied  “remains of ancient Rome are found woven into the fabric of a great metropolis which has arisen in the last few centuries since the Renaissance” even as “much that is ancient still buried in the soil or under the modern buildings of the town.”  Seeds for such Freud’s cartographical fantasy of recuperating the excavated ancient city may have been inspired by Richter’s Topography of the City of Rome, in his Vienna library, Mommsen’s History and Ludwig Lange’s Antiquities.

For Rome offered Freud a welcome retreat from Vienna.  The city broached the possibility of a communion that he did not feel at home, and yet the material maps that he saw of the city’s archeology and ancient plans would have mediated the sense that its presence was in the end not fully attainable save in contemplation of its ruins, and his sense of merger with its organization would remain forever incomplete:  when he first arrived in the city, Freud famously remembered how “I contemplated ancient Rome undisturbed.  . . . I could have worshipped . . . the remnant of the Temple of Minerva.”  If his sense of personal troubles dissipated at the rapture he felt in contact with its antique presence, he mourned the failure to develop a similar rapport with the buildings of other periods–particularly with Christian Rome–even when “liking” modern Rome.  When observing the city from the railing on the deck of a passing ship over a decade later, in 1913, he desired its presence as “that still smokey and fiery hearth from which ancient cultures had spread,” where “classical antiquity existed in all its splendor and ruthlessness”–as if to evoke the lost vibrancy that persisted in its ruined structures.

The construction of Rome famously became for Freud an illustration of the role he asserted all culture played for humans of denying death.  The uninhabited ruins of the ancient city provided a sort of cavernous monument that survived the death of its inhabitants, in ways that would have offered an illustration of cultural survival in the face of death that led him to describe as a persistent attraction during his life–if it was a desire that was repeatedly frustrated, as the philosopher Sebastiano Timpanaro has argued.  Freud adopted Rome’s ruins as a basis to reflect on the destruction of World War I; he turned to Rome’s ruins less as a figure of the destruction by foreign invaders than as a figure to describe the preservation of past memories in the human mind.  While he may have arrived at the felicitous image before the war, he evoked the possibility of a coexistence of structures of Rome as if they had never encountered destruction, fire, or invaders’ frequent attacks, which might be seen, as if in a holographic map, as a figure for the “mental life in which nothing which has once been formed can perish” and in which “everything is somehow preserved.”  The overlapping structures of Rome offered a figure designed to orient one to the persistence of the past in the human mind.  In this sense, it became an illustration of the creation of culture in the face of death which was particularly difficult to look at or confront–and which neurotic inhibition may have, indeed, frustrated repeatedly;  the archeological maps that demonstrated the survival of the pasts of Rome with reference to its current physical plant which he owned, moreover, would have provided material confirmation of the cultural coexistence of its pasts.

Was it perhaps natural for him to turn to the figure of the preserved pasts in Rome in order to imagine the city’s uniquely palimpsestic order of its stratigraphic layers?  Freud took the city’s structure as embodying a material allegory for the permanence of mental structures that was not offered otherwhere in the material world at a time when cities in Europe were increasingly redesigned with not traces of their former order:  the city’s memory provided a model for individual memory, and the traces that survived in Rome oddly effective in his broader reflection on  on the effects of civilization on the human instincts and the mind.  The city was well-known to Freud, and not only from maps.  Freud had often visited Rome, returning to its ancient spaces as sites of particular interest, may have been compelled by the interpenetration of several historical stages in Rome’s pasts preserved in maps–maps that he imagined as partial, if ultimately inadequate, models for the coexistence of what he called the “memory traces” that coexisted in the mind:  for Freud, the visitor to Rome “equipped with the most complete historical and topographical knowledge,” might reconstruct parts of its ancient layers, and if equipped with a breadth of archeological information greater than exists, might discern not “the jumble of a great metropolis that has grown in the last few centuries after the Renaissance,” but whose copious and abundant past might be excavated to reveal “all earlier phases of development . . . alongside the current ones” by representing mental life in what he called “pictorial terms.”  The coincidence that they are also cartographical does not seem happenstance.  It cannot be failed to be noted that so many terms of Freud’s psychoanalytic parlance–transference (Übertragung); projection (Projektion); topographical models and theory (Topographie)— used to assert the science were also established bona fides of cartographical empiricism.


3.  While Freud saw this image of the survival of memory traces in the individual as pictorial, Freud invited readers to envision an imagined map of the city in cartographical terms:  in which the “viewer would only have to change the direction of his glance or his position” to discern the past layers that coexisted that allowed in one space, and parse the temporal accumulation of past structures and their afterlife:  he allowed that trauma may prevent the preservation of such layers in mental life, but invited and squint at its reality, as if maps of the excavation of urban space embodied problems of orienting oneself to memory’s accumulation:  Freud imagined the conservation of memories as an phantasmagoric relation Rome as a fantasy map of historical reconstruction of the city he had regularly returned and studied in terms of how the past was indeed embodied in maps of the city’s excavation.

The metaphor of archeological excavation was so compelling that it is difficult to imagine save in reference to the archeological maps of the habitation of the ancient city, reminding us how all maps act as talismans of memory.


Platner ancient Rome


In Freud’s Rome, fragmented ruins were restored simultaneously to their past grandeur, and evidence of invasions and fires were obliterated:  its sedimented structure was no longer “a human dwelling-place, but a mental entity with just as long and varied a past history: that is, in which nothing once constructed had perished, and all the earlier stages of development had survived alongside the late.”  Freud’s cartographical flight of fancy was particularly compelling–urging us to imagine the ruins of its city as if they had never been visited by destruction or wars.  In ways that suggest the creation of a virtual reality of a city that had long challenged viewers to process as a coherent whole, Freud invited his readers create a mental map of Rome by switching “the focus of his eyes . . . in order to call up a view” to comprehend multiple Romes simultaneously, as if to discern clarity of order in the coexistence of multiple chronological times at once.  The aim was to preserve a visual image of the conservation of the past in human memory, partly analogous to a map, but more of a hologram of the city’s parallel intersecting pasts in three dimensions:

This would mean that in [this heuristic image of] Rome, the palaces of the Caesars were still standing on the Palatine and the Septizonium of Septimus Severus was still towering to its old height; that the beautiful statues were still standing in the colonnade of the Castle of St. Angelo, as they were up to its siege by the Goths, and so on. But more still: where the Palazzo Caffarelli stands there would also be, without this being removed, the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, not merely in its latest form, moreover, as the Romans of the Caesars saw it, but also in its earliest shape, when it still wore an Etruscan design and was adorned with terra-cotta antifixae. Where the Coliseum stands now, we could at the same time admire Nero’s Golden House; on the Piazza of the Pantheon we should find out only the Pantheon of today . . . , but on the same site also Agrippa’s original edifice; indeed, the same ground would support the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva and the old [pagan] temple over which it was built.


Space does exist in our heads.  But maps do serious cognitive work in mediating a past, desired structure to our minds.  Did archeological maps of the city’s ancient ruins provide a useful figure which Freud used to imagine the temporal continuity of past memories within the individual’s mind?  Or did the visual power of maps invited Freud to assemble visions of the coherence of Rome’s past in particular inspire him to turn to this complex if creative confusion of a historical reconstruction–it would not be seen by viewers, but by squinting, “equipped with the most complete historical and topographic knowledge” encoded in maps, they might discern the survival of “memory traces” in the city’s fabric, grasping the persistence and coexistence in the mind of pasts in a figure of infinite regression: “nothing once formed in the mind could ever perish, that everything survives in some way or other, and is capable under certain conditions of being brought to light again . . . when regression extends back far enough.”  

The temporal remoteness of Rome’s past had been invested with presence and palpability as it was excavated from its ground in this oddly evocative passage–the ultimate act of historical recreation–and its neighborhoods or  rioni retained its ancient plan at the turn of the twentieth century.  Erasing the violence of the repeated destruction of Rome, the imagined effort of historical reconstruct  was a restoration of unity and coherence, enabling the city to be invested with lost coherence.  The frequent mapping of Rome attempted to affirm its coherence, to be sure, but Freud when one step further, hoping to mediate the palpability of the ruins of the ancient city that surrounded one without orientation, enabling it to be suddenly viewed as a coherent surface one could touch in particularly inviting if elusive ways, embodying the lost past as well as negotiating relations between the modern lived space of Rome and its ancient past.  No doubt, the repeated mapping of Rome’s past provided a model to negotiate present and past of such formal proportions that the sedimentation of past layers in Rome’s physical plant afforded Freud with a particularly apt figure to imagine the mental ordering of the personal past in the individual mind, if not a model for how heterogeneous “memory traces” can endure within the human mind.  What “historians tell us” about the Rome offered the necessary synthesis of credible testimonies of its expansion from the Palatine Hill to the seven hills, later to the region enclosed by the Servian wall, and finally to fill the Aurelian walls, as if the city’s stratigraphic layering of pasts was collapsed but transparent, and “traces of these early stages” that “a visitor to Rome may still find today,” miraculously entire, within the spatial organization of the city’s modern form.


4.  The recent remapping of the spatial networks that Rome created try to embody the coherence of past periods, sacrificing or moving beyond the complicated visual relation to the lived past that seems to have entranced Freud as an image–and which was returned to in earlier maps’ qualitative richness.  The evocation of such mapping this past, so compellingly conjured as an imaginary act of historical reconstruction by Freud, is perhaps a lost exercise in imaginary map-making that reflected the culmination of a tradition of engraved maps–but his reflections offer an interesting point to observe the and reevaluate the attitudes of viewers before the recent GIS-based maps of the city and empire, and Roman world.  Indeed, Freud’s reflections compel us to consider the material relation maps can create, and the animation of the ancient world they create.  There is particular compulsion in animating the Roman Empire’s imprint by network-mapping offered in web maps of Rome.  Rather than only contrast their use of datasets to the rich qualitative forms of local mapping, I can’t help but be struck by their similarity as recreations of the past, and the similar effort of recuperating the past in dynamic maps, albeit in new cartographical formats.

The contemporary spatial turn recently led moovel lab to create Roads to Rome to replot a data distribution of routes through the former empire that led to Rome, rather than that topography.  By routing a million investing an almost organic unity in the network of ancient life, the web map runs against the grain of the intensive historical mapping of Rome’s built and repeatedly rebuilt place–locating a million routes arriving at Rome from a large area approximating the ancient Empire, shaded by traffic intensity or road use that gave it an almost organic coherence as a brachiation from Rome, as if the infrastructure of the ancient world might be transposed to images that recall the server of Google Maps.


ysoepkgug1revqdtqfqt.pngmoovel lab/FlowingData



Reflecting less the ancient roads of the Romans, than the network of the half a million routes to reach Rome in the continent, the interactive visualization is a sleek piece of data art, less historical in scope than the communication network traced by the ORBIS project which maps ancient routes across three continents, comprehending the Empire as a network, travel between whose cities can be mapped in days of transport and cost, and visualized by the fastest routes of travel.  The data distribution extracted from ancient records in ORBIS recreate the network of military government and administration and economic exchange, orienting users to the constraints and supports of established networks of travel along imperial routes, viewed as a georectified cartogram, coloring place locations by days of travel to better comprehend its multiple overlapping ancient spatiality’s of its own–to which one’s attention is drawn by a somewhat jarring inclusion of ancient toponymy oddly dissonant with a familiar modern interactive mapping format.


Distances from Rome in Geospatial Network.png

from RomeORBIS


Although the data distribution is removed from a material mapping of the ancient city, it maps, in keeping with modern networks, cost of communication by time and expense–sacrificing the materiality of the map, perhaps, creating a GIS visualization of the organization of space but digitizing historical detail in a map that can be queried for movement of transportation, commerce, and military travel to analyze the empire as a whole and familiarize oneself with dynamic stories about past space across its expanse, and envision the empire by its networks of travel and transport as webs that exist independently from individual cities, as from Rome to the outer reaches of the Empire, to suggest the main routes of settlement:


Flow from Rome.png


Rather than see the envisioning of networks as quantitative records distinct from the qualitative images conjuring an ancient place, both data maps provide contemporary counterparts to the maps of Rome’s built space, enabling one to capture the empire’s expanse as much as its built capital across the 50,000 miles of crisscrossing highways and routes that spanned the ancient Empire, from the edge of the Danube to Turkey to modern Britain from the imperial capital.  If the folks into urban designing at moved lab used the conceit to create algorithms to visualize routes to Rome from a modern map of the continent, emphasizing the use of roads through the thickness of their lines, they also play off of the manner that local maps of Rome long provided something of a surrogate and metaphor for public space–on a far larger canvas of the visualization of space.  The mapping of pathways and networks of exchange and travel shift attention from the limits of locality, excavating a historical or cartographically sedimented notion of space.

Might one imagine a happy medium?  The novelist John Edward Williams, ventriloquized the imagined testimony of the visitor to Rome Strabo of Amasia in his 1972 brilliant epistolary novel Augustus, addressing Nicolaus of Damascus in Alexandria to orient him to the city, which seems to have particular resonance for the ORBIS project in how he took the city as a means to describe the journey and the letter as a means to bridge the geographical distance travelled in the ancient world.   Strabo raises questions about attitudes to space in the  ancient world, sending “greetings from Rome, where I arrived only last week, after a long and most wearying journey,–from Alexandria, by way of Corinth; by sail and by oar; by cart, wagon, and horseback; and sometimes even by foot, staggering beneath the weight of my books.”  To orient his correspondent to the city, Strabo admits that when “One looks at maps, and does not truly apprehend the extent and variety of the world.  It is a new sort of education, the gaining  of which does not require a master . .  .”  The future biographer of Augustus from Alexandria invites Nicolaus to “Imagine, if you will, a city which occupies perhaps half the area of that Alexandria, where we studied as boys,–and then think of that city containing within its precincts more than twice the number that crowded Alexandria.  That is the Rome I live in now–a city of nearly a million people, I have been told.”

The following meditation reflects attempts to materialize its lost world in a striking first-person narrative of spatial acclimatization to its uniquely busy space that seems almost a microcosm of the ancient world:  “And how they crowd themselves together, these Romans.  Beyond the walls of the city lie some of the most beautiful countryside that you can imagine; yet these people huddle together here like fish trapped in a net and struggle through narrow, winding little streets that run senselessly, mile after mile, through the endless city.”  “And yet at the center of this chaos, this city, there is, as if it were another world, the great Forum.  It is like the fora that we have seen in the provincial cities, but much grander–great columns of marble support the official buildings; there are dozens of temples to the borrowed Roman gods; and many smaller buildings that house the various offices of urban government.”  Williams barely describes the monumental space that is familiar to one’s mind’s eye, but portrays the human geography of the ancient monumental space of the forum from the perspective of its visitor, recalling the prominent place the Forum has long held in its spatial imaginary.


5.  The above web maps do serious cognitive work in offering a new sense of the spatial network of Rome’s past, expanding far beyond the search for organic unity that Freud might have found within the learned maps of Richter, Platner, Mommsen, and Tuebner, or in his own Baedeker.  The worlds that these city maps of Rome created for viewers, and served as forms of address built into any mapping of Rome as a place is this post’s subject.

Cartographers who mapped Rome long adopted particularly innovative ways of re-embodying of the ancient city’s past for multiple scholarly and popular audiences who looked to see the ancient city, making it more material than its ruins offered, that the recent remapping of the networks of the ancient world and its routes of travel and senses of space build upon.   Rather than map the achievement and stresses of the Empire, such urban maps provided a unique focal points, if not symbolic touchstones,  only orient one to space, but provide and embody records of the habitation of lived space, embodying Rome’s made space, using maps to create the reality of Rome’s space that appeared so tantalizingly close in how they overlap.  Is there a way to unpack the materiality of the map-and specifically its engraved materiality–as a way to capture the sensation of entering the layered levels of past chronology within the city of Rome?

Mappings of modern mega-regions express patterns of work and movement, as much as physical constructions.  Yet as urban space rapidly changed during the late nineteenth century, expanding to accommodate new populations, the growth of the city organized by familiar rhythms increased the attraction of the built unity ascribed to ancient Rome–the city acquired status as a touchstone of the historical past, as well as recognizable forms of an architectural canon–in ways unlike viewing of its ancient ruins in the Grand Tour, as its construction and architecture took on a second life in maps this post takes as it subject.




If painters embodied Rome’s ancient ruins as a visual pastiche of recognizable forms gained popularity in pictorially virtuosic capricci as imagined spaces whose idealized forms are set within the fantastic space of a mythical architectural museum–


640px-Giovanni_Paolo_Panini,_An_architectural_capriccio_with_figures_among_Roman_ruinsPannini,  “Architectural Capriccio with Figure among Roman Ruins,” circa 1630


–whereas most nineteenth-century archeological maps expressed the uncovering of the  coherence of its stratigraphic layers to embody a spatially coherent relation to the ancient past, endowing it with a new coherence.  The image of the forma urbis of the ancient city of Rome within its Aurelian walls–which survived in an engraved marble map carved in antiquity, and known in its multiple fragments as the early Severan plan–provided a sense of the organic unity of the older city.  The space of the forum became evident in the monumentality of the ruins of arches and temples recovered in the Roman forum, whose monuments became a point of historical reflection and of the Grand Tour.  Its spatial organization provided a topos of the remembrance of the past occupation of space, as well rendering the material recovery of its remote past.  Rome has gained many incarnations in the various maps of the ancient and modern city, often at a remove from its lived space.

For if architectural accomplishments in Rome are regularly foregrounded from several periods in maps, any mapping of the city involves some degree of excavation of ancient, imperial and baroque constructions that viewers are challenged to unify:  maps provided a compilation of the discovered traces of antiquity, and a distillation of the superfluity of signs of the disappeared people of an ancient space  that invited if also frustrated acts of remembering by reinforcing temporal remove.  The remapping of the ancient forma urbis Romae revisited in engraved maps of rebuilt Rome not only across the Renaissance and Reformation, or the periods of the baroque and Enlightenment, but indeed to twentieth century fascist Rome, and can result in compelling spatial fantasies.

For any encounter with the built city, even if not on paper, invites concerned attempts of remapping that attest to the continued habitation of the city as well as to uncover the form of the city able to be exhumed city whose life continues, if submerged, beneath its built structures–and to process its entirety through traces of past ages.   As much as providing a recuperation of the lost ancient plan the frustrating proximity and remove of ancient Rome invites cognitive mapping and remapping–as in this late eighteenth century plan of Rome by the elegant architect and engraver Giovanni Battista Piranesi,who almost gave the current mapping of Rome new monumental status as if it were a marble tablet, irregularly shaped, mutatis mutandi, in its Aurelian walls–with the region encompassed by the older, fourth century BC Severan walls largely shaded a darker grey, as if reflected in a stone tablet of ancient derivation.


Pianta di Roma-alone!Pianta di Roma of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, circa 1774 (courtesy of the Getty Institute)


Heavily annotated, and keyed by numerical references, as well as differently shaded regions, the conversion of the city to a text stands at the culmination of a tradition of its mapping and remapping.  And Sigmund Freud famously found the ruins of Rome a powerful figure to unpack the coalescence of preserved memories, simultaneously held in one space–but are rarely tied to the scrutiny of structures exposed to diachronic analysis.  Such maps attentively parse the overlapping of ancient and modern built space.

The Piranesi map suggests a new monumentality of space, and maps, both reconstructing signs of the ancient city, keyed in the legend, and creating a new marmoreal map designed to endure.  Indeed, unlike the fragmented monumental map of the marble Severan plan, known only by fragments from the late sixteenth century–now known by 1,186 surviving fragments available online, any map of Rome was an imaginative effort and historical act designed to recast its coherence for the spectator in new monumental form.


6.  The disentangling of such structures were especially evident in the contemplation of a map.  And it seems no coincidence that that great consumer of city maps from Vienna, Sigmund Freud, found the ruins of Rome a powerful figure to unpack the coalescence of preserved memories, simultaneously held in an individual mind.  Freud’s metaphor for the structuring of memory as the coexistence of multiple strata of archeological time seems less a poetic fancy than a metaphor rooted in studying maps that revealed multiple strata of archeological time and lived experience, or structures exposed to diachronic analysis in maps.    Maps showing the overlapping between ancient Rome’s built space across different periods–plans that occasionally made symbolic reference to Rome’s contemporary design, but emphasized the coherence of the ancient city’s architecture across time.  Such maps of Rome’s ancient physical plant inspired the skillful negotiation both of historical ages and offered comparison between lived space and mapped space; Rome, which seems the model of the civilization of space and the lost center to which not only all roads once seemed to lead–but where built space in a sense began–seemed a model whose built form held compelling visual interest, and indeed whose discrimination required a practiced or trained eye to unpack its qualitatively complex spatial organization.

Freud appreciated archeology as a figure of the human sciences of the overlapping of ancient and modern built space.  Yet the negotiation both of historical ages and between lived space and mapped space, was particularly poignant in the case of Rome, which seems the model of the civilization of space and the lost center to which not only all roads once seemed to lead–but where built space in a sense began–but whose physical form could be mapped in qualitatively complex terms as a site of compelling visual interest.  As if prefiguring how the built space of Rome would provide Freud with a metaphorical topos for the excavation of the past, Piranesi had earlier attempted to map ancient monuments comprehended by Rome’s Aurelian walls in the eighteenth century, by rendering ancient buildings in different shade to ensure the legibility of the antique in the urban fabric, and allow the spatial situation of antique.  Piranesi allowed the interpretation of the spatial situation of antique structures within the modern city for those who seek to better understand their significance and the spatial layering of time, darkening tint to reveal the presence in Rome of ancient structures, as well as numbering monuments for readers–as in an early form of keying place similar to GIS–but, unlike GIS, used the stronger shades of grey to depict the organic unity of buildings in the ancient city–“marking antiquities in a stronger shading [si sono marcato le antichità con tinta più forte, perche si comprendano piu agevolmente]“–to embody the ancient city’s presence against Rome’s current streetplan.



Piranesi: una tinta piu' forte

Piranesi-Numbered zbuildings in Central RomePiranesi, Antichità Romane (1762)


Roman ruins suggest narratives of loss that obscure the outlines of a genealogy of former greatness, and the death of earlier periods.  Meanwhile, their lacunae raised questions about a lost space, embodied only in maps, that gave the city something like a second life–particularly marketed to visitors, eager to grasp the entirety of the city from its fragments.  The Roman forum seems a pre-eminent “thing of the past” which it invited observers to admire–less by the flâneur who saunters among its ruins than as a surviving structure of ancient art in the age of the End of Art, an abstract spatial idealization of concrete beauty.  As an image of educational cultivation and cultural formation, the status assumed by the ruins of the ancient Forum became a destination of pilgrimage within the Grand Tour analogous to a religious pilgrimage:  The Forum was represented as embodying and incarnating a spirit or Geist in maps, a concrete if idealized manifestation of the structure of Rome across overlapping periods of universal significance as “a thing of the past” that was kept alive in cartographical form.  It was a site from which one sought cultural and historical orientation, as well as of architectural magnificence–even in the mid-sixteenth century, when the city barely filled its ancient Aurelian walls, but when its ancient monuments were clearly visible and foregrounded  and magnified as focal points of its urban fabric, visible beside the churches of the Renaissance city in the popular print.


Pinnard RomeUgo Pinard, Urbis Romae Descriptio (1555) from Speculum Romae magnificentiae


The problem of which Rome to look at was posed in early printed maps of the city as a sort of cognitive test.  When the humanistically educated Michel de Montaigne eagerly visited Rome, some thirty years after the printing of Pinard’s map of its buildings, he ascended the Janiculum in hopes to “contemplate the configuration of all the parts of Rome, which may not be seen so clearly from any other place,” frustrated at assembling a sense of the coherence whose plan “he spent his time only in studying,” surrounded by “various maps and books read to him,” according to his Secretary, but only found cartographical confusion and disorientation. Determined to grasp the “plan of its site,” frustrated that “nothing remained to the senses,” Montaigne ascended the Janiculum hill above the Vatican in hopes to apprehend “the buildings of this bastard Rome . . . attaching to these ancient ruins” whose “disfigured limbs which remained were the least worthy . . . of all that was most beautiful and most worthy.”  If a master of bricolage, Montaigne seems deeply frustrated by the dissonance between ruins and a pristine past Rome’s maps commonly tried to smooth in order to create some coherence that allow access across temporal distance to its past.

The steep cognitive dissonance Montaigne described, and the dissatisfaction that he seems to have experience, was a tacit subject of concern to smooth in later urban maps of Rome, which preserve the city’s multiple periods in one frame, as if to present its ages as part of a common or shared collective imaginary, and to decipher its past habitation.


Romes and ancient campi.png


The built space of the city was mediated as if it belonged to a shared collective imaginary.

Rarely has the intensive mapping of one city generated such intense inquiry as a subject of study designed to bridge that gulf of spatial disconnect that leapt between the seen and unseen, or between the image of Rome, that collective archeological construction tantamount to a secularized image of Augustine’s City of God and its actual appearance:  the monuments of Rome’s forum have provided a subject of reflection as powerful as poetry, to invert Shakespeare’s topos that neither monuments or the gilded monuments of princes should outlive his rhyme:  as if poetic conceits of their own, Rome’s monuments create a space that constitute an image as durable as the buildings of the Forum, despite their partly crumbling marble on their columns and the worn nature of its flagstones, endure as a built space of monuments, as these monuments have become almost an icon of government.  A veritable flood of printed engraved maps have mediated and enabled the persistence of Rome’s space across time.

For maps have lent the imaginary of the city’s plant the possibility of a second life or afterlife removed from its actual lived space.  One might speak of a two-fold life of the physical plant of the ancient city from its social space enabled by cartographical representation of the joint seat of republicanism and Empire which blur a single temporal frames of reference, and in which entrances the viewer because of how multiple frames of reference overlap within its topography in one frame.  Reinhard Koselleck very famously interrogated after-life of concepts of a chronological past that persist into lived presents, and the ways that past concepts found new lives.  Within the interaction between how past, present, and future combine in the perception of history and space, Koselleck argued, concepts of the past intersects or folds into the distribution of its own physical space in modern life.  Modernity is slippery, but in few cities more than Rome is past historical time so clearly present and as physically present and interwoven with a spatial orders built in intersecting periods apparent in overlapping but coexistent physical plants –and in few cities in the organic unity of the city so identified with perceiving the relation between its layers.  Indeed, the reaction to expanding archeological excavation of ancient Rome’s plant in the late nineteenth century was seen as the recovery of a common patrimony–which was unlike either the legal context of the excavation and administration of the past in Paris, whose ruins were owned by the city, while ruins lying on private property in England:  the Italian Sovraintendenza per i beni archaeologic inherited the management of the ruins of ancient Rome as a worldly archeological patrimony, to be preserved and made present for other nations as its monuments partook of a shared past, if it is treated as a national “good” subject to the constraints of state management.


7.  The observation of the Eternal city, if extending from antiquaries to the Grand Tour, was increasingly tied to the disentangling of its pasts and the internalization of the subject of the city in even more material fashion in the age of its public excavation.  After the revelation of evanescent existence of glimpses of its past were afforded by the uncovering in the 1880s of the ruins of the Forum and temples, whose excavation provided a basis for contemplating its history, the place of Rome grew both in the active mapping of its physical plant and the cataloguing of its material testimonies more explicitly mapped than ever before:  the organization of the plant of the ancient city, and the glimpses that this offered to its past organic whole, offered for many learned visitors a basis to internalize its dynamic constitution, from Republic to Empire, the internalization which served as a form of individual cultural formation and personal cultural formation and  bildung.   Viewing Rome’s antiquities, and viewing the forum, was no longer only accessible in private collections or the spaces of contemplation of palazzi and museums.  For in printed form, it could be both spatially navigated and surveyed–most famously from the Capitoline hill, as Gibbon reminded his readers.  The view offered an imaginary space that could be entered and comprehended as a spatial order, both opposed to and the counterpart of the new built spatial order of European cities, and a sense of a historical prospect on the ancient world that had been recently excavated, eerily if not uncannily present for an instant with some imaginative effort.

The comprehension of the formerly living structure of the ruins of Rome provided a way of narrating the political history of the ancient city, and of communing in tactile fashion with its very survival–and, of course, allowed the means to internalize that survival within the individual subject.  The metaphor of the excavated city could have provided Freud with such a compelling a model of individual memory, in this age of the uncovering of multiple layers of the past and the reconstruction of historical buildings and layers of the city in increasingly legible form.  Both city plans and maps that were constructed with a level of accuracy unprecedented in their scope and attention to specific detail provided particularly compelling records for temporal transport, ordering the excavation of its topography from the physical traces of its ancient spaces to which mapmakers had regularly returned, that invested a tangibility with its multiple traces of the antique.  Indeed, the excavation of the idealized organic structure of the city created a sensitive screen, in which Freud constructed a material image of the lamination of the mind with individual layers of individual memories across different discrete periods of time:  the figure of the potentially simultaneous excavation of the city’s ancient buildings across multiple stratigraphic layers in a sort of personal archive, offered a powerful viewpoint with which to view and describe the temporal formation of the self, and indeed the role of the analyst as an investigator of the psyche whose work followed compelling positivistic models.

The spatial situation of the Capitoline hill provided visitors a privileged point to view the ancient Forum–site of public life and worship, and the clearest surviving manifestation of ancient architecture to be excavated that could be readily surveyed–and imagine its coherence led to a market of maps to orient viewers to a coherence able to be held in one’s mind’s eye, not only to navigate but to distinguish between the laminated layers of its pre- and post-Augustan construction.  Indeed, the fascist epoch reused the forum to perpetuate its own imperial heritage–renaming, as Mussolini’s government did, the street alongside the forums as the “Street of Imperial Fora” [Via dei fori imperiali] and a site for the staging of public government spectacle that effectively consolidated the imagined genealogy that the Fascist government sought to cultivate.

Freud may have turned this metaphor into a compelling figure to express his concept of the layering in the unconscious of individual memory-formation–and indeed as a key to the interpretation of a “map” of individual memories that the project of psychoanalysis would be oriented toward–indeed, maps offered Freud an unlikely figure for a program of training of the interpretation and excavation of memory traces.  For as he described the excavation of “memory traces” to the ability of the visitor to Rome who arrives “equipped with the most complete historical and topographical knowledge,” maps offered the guides necessary to the interpretation of the physical traces of the past in the city of Rome.  The equipping with such an authoritative historical map seemed suddenly comparable to the course of training to observe memory traces in the mind of the analysand.   For a visitor to Rome, searching “Of the buildings which once occupied this ancient ground-plan . . . will find nothing, or but meagre fragments, for they exist no longer.”  Even though equipped “with the best information about Rome of the republican era, the utmost [such a visitor] could achieve would be to indicate the sites where the temples and public buildings of that period stood,” the imagined excavation of the individual past must surpass the extent to which ruins occupy places in Rome, and often “the ruins are not those of the early buildings themselves but of restorations of them in later times after fires and demolitions.”  The qualification of needing adequate topographical knowledge (most familiarly condensed in maps) as keys to interpretation of physical traces in the city–maps which were widely produced in the Age of Excavation–offered a suitable figure of speech for the observance of the ancient traces that remained of the organic whole of the ancient city, and unintentional traces of the analogy between maps to the proper course of training would allow the analyst to gain a similarly spectacular prospective on the  memory-formation of an individual.

The maps of the city’s excavation in Freud’s library, and which he consulted in preparing for his visit, offered a measure of credibility to the interpretation of surviving memory traces in the mind.  Such maps afforded powerful metaphor and figure not only for the organization of memory but for what an objective map of memory by which to detect and view the coherence that existed within traces of one’s personal past sedimented within individual consciousness, whose coherence might be recuperatively reassembled only by detecting buried memories repressed as if under stratigraphic layers.  Their coherence, Freud implied, might be authoritatively assembled in a comprehensive detailed temporal map.  Such a map would provide a narrative, and a dynamic structure, more analogous to the keyed GIS image of a dynamic map, to be sure, but which departed from the GIS precursors that seem embedded in the tagged structures of Rome’s excavated topography–by “squinting,” as it were, to reveal the superimposition of structures of different times.





Forum Romanum Baedecker 1868.pngBaedecker Guide, engraved “Plan of the Forum Romanum” (Darmstadt 1868)


Maps and plans such as those that were diffused in Baedekers were designed to invite readers discern the organic order of the city in its ruins, and indeed to celebrate the organic unity of apparently disembodied ruins:  the laminated layers of the historical city had been regularly celebrated as a sublime moment of internalizing the coherence and dynamic of the city’s history as if conducting a medical autopsy of its ancient ruins.  Disentangling its layers of time was a surrogate for witnessing the tensions between republican and imperial Rome as enacted on the Palatine.  As archeologists revealed the layering of its monuments of travertine atop one another, discerning the relations and tensions of the state from Republican through Augustan Rome in sites of public assemblies, commerce, and public spectacles, offered a space of cognitive mapping, as one actively disentangled the temporal relation of its roads, temples, and urban plant, with reference to maps of Baedecker guides copiously illustrated with elegant lithographs of its built space, or maps Samuel Ball Platner included in his Topography and Monuments of Ancient Rome (1903).  The assembly of the excavated city was in other words repeatedly enacted in maps, as much as maps only offered Freud an an elegant figure of speech.

A plan revealed, even in the imposition of structures and basilica of different ages, the concealed but organic whole of the city–and its architectural exemplarity–in impossible ways by disentangling the fragmentation of actual temporal layers with a timeless organic plan, allowing the superimposition of different historical ages within the same frame.


6f1dfdb7cbe6638319024e5a75e7275fPlatner’s Topography and Monuments of Ancient Rome, 1904


Platner Imperial Fora.png


Both Platner, and Baedecker before him, designed exact city plans to explicate the dynamics of the form and situation of ancient Roman urban space–and to render legible the spectacular view which could be seen from atop the Capitoline Hill.  The commerce between the observer of the scene of public life and the formation of the individual subject were not only cultivated and pronounced.  The tension between intuiting the order of the architectural plant within the actual disorder of appearances was acute–“thy very weeds are beautiful, thy waste/More rich than other climes’ fertility/Thy wreck a glory, and thy ruin graced/With an immaculate charm which cannot be defaced“–and none of the maps were primarily designed for travel, but rather as mental aids:  the traveller was enjoined to purchase a separate rail map of Edoardo Sonzogno, both for fares and time-tables and planning travel, even as the Baedecker described one’s every move–and provided an opportunity for time-travel as well, as one negotiated the italicized Italian place-names of actuality with the boldface topography of the ancient world that was coexistent with it–and uncover and discern, in an act of individual excavation, exhuming the organic city of Roma Vetus, Constantines’ Basilica of St. Peter in place of the Vatican, Diocletian’s baths on the Quirinal, fora of Trajan, Domitian and Augustus restored to the cityscape and Forum itself in place of the Campo vaccino, all within surviving if long fragmented Aurelian walls.


Forum Baedecker 1868Karl Baedecker, Handbook for Travellers.  Second Part:  Central Italy and Rome (1869)



ROMA VETUS Baedecker.png




The act of imaginative force required particular skill at disentangling overlapping buildings, basilica, and fora that could be anachronically remapped beside one another:


Platner 1903Platner, Topography and Monuments (1904)


8.  The interpenetration of the spatial and historical was a particular preoccupation that was attended to for viewers of the interlayered topographies of ancient and modern Rome from the fifteenth century, which tried to disentangle the presence of the ancient in the city as if to excavate its layers:  and the overlay of its sacred space was increasingly foregrounded atop its ancient plan in the Reformation–wrestling with the entanglement of sacred, classical, and imperial spaces, and the ecclesiastical administration of sacred monuments.  When Freud enlisted the image of the overlapping of these spaces as a subject of individual formation he offered a suitably scientific metaphor by which to generalize the objective persistence of the past in an individual memory traces as artifacts–as he evocatively described the Forum and Eternal City as a basis to understand not the formation of the individual subject–and orient him to the subject of memory as they oriented the individual to an almost archetypal public space in particularly powerful positivistic ways, particularly powerful in how it elided spatial and temporal continuity.

The material origins of Freud’s chosen metaphor for individual memory in a map’s surface have rarely been rooted in their image of a structural superimposition of time.  Yet the topos of formation from looking at the tensions or dynamics within the organism of the ancient city provided a recognizable figure from which Freud could compellingly ask relatively educated readers to consider the individual mind.  As well as providing Freud with a powerful figure of speech, maps of the eternal city afforded a something close to a scientifically objective language to situate the temporal coexistence of memories in the mind.  The maps provided  not only an orientation to the past, but an image of the continued organic survival of structures of the past that were particularly appealing, for they suggested the organic survival of earlier physical plants, partly erased with time, as if a sort of mental furniture:  if Freud was an antiquarian, the image of the map of the classical city, borrowed from those included in the Platner or the average Baedecker guide, or from Otto Richter’s Topographie der Stadt Rom, an archeological treatise that he owned, provided an image of the exhuming of this organic whole of the historical past, based on Lanciani’s pioneering work of antiquities.  Freud consulted such works before he even visited the city, as if in preparation for the long-planned trip he seemed to have sought to make to Rome, for which he prepared with considerable anticipation.

There was, for Freud, significant longing for the inaccessible, and indeed an image of the living dead, close if forever elusive and removed from direct contact, in the maps of ancient Rome that he enjoyed reading in Vienna, but which only must have reminded him of the removed nature of Rome, and the temporal remove of the ancient Rome that he could have most directly perceived when visiting its ancient forum.


9.  The historicity of space is evident in the intersecting temporalities in Rome’s layered architecture and architectonic plans.  The city’s classical plans coexist with its sacred space and civic space.  The plausibility of the simultaneity of its archeological layers no doubt encouraged Sigmund Freud to suggest, “by a flight of the imagination,” take the ground plans of Rome’s across different periods as a material metaphor of the psyche, as if, as Gibbon atop the Capitoline Hill, imagining a temporal pastiche of the panorama in which all buildings from every time that might be imagined to coexist side by side:  the potential coexistence of multiple periods in one single physical space provided a metaphor able to embody Freud’s model of human consciousness, where memories would lack historical specificity, but coexist with one another in surprisingly scientific and immediately understandable ways, as if a Procrustean inheritance that persisted in each individual, even as the brain’s physical structure altered from childhood.

What was internalized as an organic form of the ancient city, in other words, was taken by Freud as a model for the successive and active lamination of mental furniture of individual memories in the individual psyche.  Then formal promise of the map that uncovered their persistence, moreover, allowed the possibility of their objective interpretation, from a view as privileged as that which the Capitoline offered of the different layers of Rome’s Republican past, even in a plant from the age of Augustus.  The dramatic architectural and spatial modern transformation of most central European cities in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, from Vienna, Cracow, Brno and Budapest, as well as Bratislava, Zagreb, and Timisoara–following the expansion of London and Paris, constituted a massive change in the aesthetic and physical presence of the city as a landscape of urban life.  The public reception of built space and new forms of architecture in the International Style after the dissolution of the Hapsburg Empire contrast to the organic unity attributed to Rome’s physical plant.  In contrast, the plant of Rome provided a compelling basis to objectify the layering of successive stages of the individual’s past memories as if they were a collective edifice.  If the metamorphoses of these metropolises reflected a triumph of sustained urban planning, rooted in modernist architecture and design, Rome provided an emblem of the persistence of earlier ages.

Ancient architecture’s cosynchronous mapping may have indeed offered a compelling objective correlative for the Freudian concept of the persistence of individual memories across its neurological development as it existed in maps.  While Freud willingly allowed that demolitions and constructions in the development of a city made it appear “a priori unsuited for a comparison with . . . a mental organism,” Freud privileged Rome’s space as a unique figure to imagine the formation and lamination of individual memories in the mind, and the lamination of successive memories that continued to persist and structure in the mind, as much as the formation of the individual, and whose persistence Freud believed continued to structure individual actions:  if his own trip to Rome would for a Viennese–albeit a Viennese Jew–have been associated with personal bildung, Freud saw Rome’s spaces as offering an objective image to articulate how the encrustation of memory persisted in the individual’s character across the neurological changes in the brain’s structures and physical organization, otherwise difficult to map or visualize:  acting on his frequent longing to visit Rome, he visited it frequently since an initial pilgrimage in September 1901–if conscious of deep fears of facing death and mortality that perhaps prevented him from reaching the city laced with fears of the intimations of mortality.  Freud seemed terrified of the complexity of its many layers, both visible and invisible, riddled with absences; he was fascinated by the urban structure of such presences and past traces, consulting not only Baedekers, but Richter’s Topography of the City of Rome, Mommsen’s History and Ludwig Lange’s Antiquities.  Each revealed Rome’s layered topography to Freud and were tools to prepare himself for this visit by the discoverer of the Arch of Augustus.  He first visited the city in the late 1890s to observe these antiquities, and later returned almost obsessively, as if in search for meaning and lucidity, admitting to have a “longing . . . deeply neurotic” for the city, which seemed to him “a cloak and a symbol for several other deeply desired wishes,” that emerged in the course of his deep application of himself to study its topography in the late 1890s, after which his arrival at the city’s Forum must have seemed even more stupendous.

The familiarity that he gained with the cityscape of the Eternal City definitely domesticated any latent fears of its ruins or unmasterability.  He came to call the Forum and Palatine his “most favorite corner of Rome”in 1910, returning often to the region of Rome in the twelve days he spent in the city, and even celebrating his mastery of the local topography during the visit that he had earlier feared as the culmination of his self-analysis.  By 1912, he wrote to his wife on a separate visit to Rome with some surprise about how “natural to be in Rome” it had become that “I have no sense of being a foreigner” and the “delicious, somewhat melancholy solitude” with which he wandered along the Palatine, and returned in 1913 “visiting old haunts” in the city where he wrote the Introduction to Totem and Taboo.  (Revisiting the city again, with Anna, in 1923, prolonged for several weeks, spending time in the Forum and on the Aventine with some fear that he would not revisit them after he had already become ill, coughing blood on the train down.)  Freud’s return to the city seemed more obsessive and in search of its elusive integrity than driven by fear.  Freud returned to the topography of the city, famously, when stuck in his composition of the Interpretation of Dreams, and traveled seven times to Rome in his life, fascinated by Michelangelo’s Moses and by the city’s antiquities.  As much as the idea of a site of past vestiges of earlier eras existed in the material city he visited, these experiences would have been mediated through maps in crucial ways.

The relation of city’s overlapping temporally specific structures and spaces offered a concrete representation of the lamination of memories of the past in the individual psyche:  even if, as he put it, “the thymus gland of childhood is replaced after puberty by connective tissue” in the human brain, and the bones of the child disappeared, the ruins of Rome provided a figure for how memories were stored by the individual both persisted and shaped the individual’s psychic life, and indeed provide a sort of road-map by which the personal choices one made could be understood.  For Freud imagined the survival of subconscious memories in the mind as if from the outlines of maps of the city’s plans in a Baedecker, or later guides to the organic whole of Rome commonly used by visitors–in so doing, converting the city from a site of the intimations of mortality to a figure of the human mind.  Plans presented a similar palimpsest in which the earlier layers are not fragmentary, but continued to be actually present in the same space:  Freud had perhaps arrived at the realization while interpolating plans of different eras in the actual city and cross-referencing its physical monuments with the guide he might have had in hand when comparing the place of buildings from different periods in its panorama to the marble monuments he saw, switching from map to viewpoint with possible frustration for points of orientation to distinguish the historical layers of construction simultaneously before his eyes–much as the plans promised to distinguish the levels of material building within the ancient Forum, dignifying his perspective of the individual psyche by analogy to the privileged position of space from the Capitoline.

The map became no more a metaphor for bildung, but a metaphor for mapping one’s own memories and their progressive encrustation atop one another in one’s mind, an accretion of memories constituting for Freud the formation of an image of how the lamination of specific memories maintain a continued presence in the individual psyche.


IMAGE PROTECTION ARTISANS LANE VINTAGE VIEWSKarl Baedeker, engraved by Wagner & Debes, 1900 (1:1,600)


The conceit perfectly expressed the ability to view the psyche in its totality–as ell as an image of mortality that Freud felt compelled to confront.

Freud’s memorable conceit of miraculous spatial simultaneity from multiple periods and historical times in one and the same space was served well by Rome–“an entity in which nothing that has once come into existence will have passed away and all earlier phases of development will coexist beside the latest one” would exist, he realized, by an analogy he felt even lay readers would grasp to reach a new state of sublime for the privileged observer of a Rome whose historical periods would somehow coexist:  by a wave of the wand of cartographical fantasy, so that without the Palazzo Cafarelli having to be removed, one might see within it the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in each of the era it survived, including the Etruscan, and one could, in a spectacular feat of historical recreation, actually admire Nero’s long-destroyed Golden House in its original splendor.




Ever the good scholar, Freud became somewhat rapturous as he described the memorable image of the superimposition of historical periods and buildings from different historical eras in the same physical space and panorama to capture the difficulty of processing such a unified mental space:  while the descriptions have been argued to be based on the Cambridge Ancient History‘s chapters dedicated to the founding of Rome, it recalls the didactic rendering Karl Baedecker used to show  the historical formation of Rome’s urban space in the 1900 edition of his city guide, in ways that remind us how maps are important forms to think about and encounter its built space:


Baedecker Superimposition of Space



The overlapping if not tangled layered spatial entanglement of historical periods–here rendered in the sedimentation of layers of place names in Latin and, in printer’s red, in Italian,  is quite readily perceived and recurrently realized by current visitors to the Eternal City.  Maps must have provided a model for Freud’s understanding of the persistence of an organic whole across multiple periods of one’s personal history, and tools to decipher a built past whose organic forms were readily accessible by the skilled reader–or interpreter.  If his apparent anxiety about making an actual voyage to Rome may have partly lay in his fears of his abilities to be able to interpret the entangled chronological spaces of Rome’s ancient architecture, his return to the city suggests the particular pleasure he took in encountering its multiple pasts.

The architectural palimpsest of the city proves cognitively challenging for those who navigate its streets, where one constantly processes, either with or without the maps of a Baedecker guide, the city’s physical plant through space–assembling the panorama from viewpoints as the Capitoline suddenly demand the reassembly of its elements in distinct ways.  The Baedecker engraving presents an analytic disassembly of place–top0s–that allows the visitor and reader to interfoliate archeological plans with their own experience, they constitute a unique spatial practice quite akin to Freud’s cartographical fantasia of excavating the continued materiality of past memories in the individual mind.  The practice of excavating the lost but organic whole of Rome’s physical past echoes a longstanding antiquarian practices from the earliest humanist master-builder, Leon Battista Alberti, who famously remeasured Rome’s excavated monuments for his friends, to sixteenth-century antiquarians as Pirro Ligorio, to papal librarians and erudite as Luc Holste, to the numerous engravings of the ancient buildings that were sold in Rome but appeared as orphans outside their original urban plan and built structures of the ancient city.  The making present of Rome’s physical past was a concentrated effort of erudites as much as a mental recreation of a lived space that never stopped haunting the city itself.

For these engraved maps, Freud was no doubt aware, echoed in their exactitude and precision the lost if partly rediscovered marble Forma urbis of Imperial Rome, a massive incised plan of monuments in the city carved and erected between 203 and 211 CE, of which only 10% of the original one hundred and fifty marble slabs survive.  Collectively mounted in the center of Rome in the Capitoline Museum in 1903, including the 490 fragments found since 1600, they provided a new record of the city’s lost plant.  If the original map of eighteen meters by thirteen meters (sixty by forty-five feet) offered a ground plan of urban architecture delineating all buildings in the city for functions not clearly or adequately understood by a scale of 1:240, perhaps based on exact cadastral surveys, distinguished the city’s public buildings by the unique double-outlining. The ancient map may have offered a celebratory image of the peacefulness of the city appropriate to the setting in the Temple of Peace [Templum pacis]–or may have provided a permanent record of buildings against which cadastral maps were drawn.  Known by its fragments since 1561, the newly discovered pieces of the Severan map of the city of Rome’s buildings offered lost knowledge of the ancient city that provided a partial record of Rome’s lost past–and indeed the structure from which the modern city emerged.

Piranesi suggestively arranged surviving fragments as fragmentary shards in post-modern manner in his eighteenth century map of Rome of 1762, less as evanescent fragments of ancient Rome to which erudite archeologists returned to reconstruct its continuity, the Baedecker guide rehabilitated their iconography for the cultural memories of new readers, but acknowledged its effective stripping away of the built layers of the city by mapping is forms within the fragments of the map rediscovered gradually from 1561.


Roma Campo Marzio


The reconstruction of cartographical fragments of the Severan plan that frame Piranesi’s 1761 map of Campo Marzio in his Roma offer an image of intentional melancholy.  They suggest the difficulty of assembling the ancient map of Rome, but remind the viewer of the temporal remove of the past in its dislocated fragments.

Piranesi’s possible knowledge of Giambattista Vico’s recent 1741 Scienza nuova is uncertain–but is suggested by Piranesi’s visits to Naples in years immediately following.  But Piranesi flanked Rome by material fragments of the Severan map of the ancient city as if to suggest the discovery of fragments of the ancient city brought to light if long concealed, in line with Vico’s metaphysics of the recovery of ancient meaning–as much as in a melancholy relation to the lost past:  assembled around the modern map of Rome, the marble fragments of the Severan map are less a fragmented record than offer evidence of a still earlier past, now surpassed, and an assertion of the unique made nature of the ancient city’s space:  the Severan plan emphasized the made nature of Rome’s monuments for Piranesi, perhaps echoing how Vico privileged the made nature of all human knowledge in the Scienza nuova–and the distinction Vico gave ancient Rome as a unique center for making knowledge.


Camp [o marzio].png


The continuity of these fragments as engraved by Piranesi seems uncanny:  unlike in other cities, whose past is all too often rapidly obscured, the organization of the forma urbis has such a staying power in the city’s physical plant that most regions, if only fragmented, can be immediately recognized as a disposition of space that has been occupied in new ways:


mamertine-martio.jpgIoana Iliesiu


This image, on the edge of the Forum and broken just beyond the Capitoline Hill, maps the Isola Tiburtino against modern Rome.  Piranesi included such fragments of the Severan map about his map as if to provide a reflection on the made knowledge of all things cartographical–and an graphic embodiment of the emphasis placed by Vico on the made nature of built environments–reminds us of the suppression of the city’s ancient space. The extent to which such fragments of marble from a once entire map exhibited for public view describe a loss of the harmonious expression of the built city responded to Giambattista Nolli’s recent comprehensive cityscape for Benedict XIV by surveying tools of his own device.

The unearthed fragments of the Severan plan provided an eloquent foil for Prianesi’s project of mapping its lived space.

Fragments of Piranesi.png


10.   Such intensive efforts of recreation provided the background against which the architect Giambattista Nolli mapped the augmented expanse of modern buildings the had come to occupy Rome’s earlier physical plant, as if to place Rome once more on the map in the mid-eighteenth century, and celebrate in comprehensively detailed fashion its expansion under sustained papal attention and commissions to an expanse that indeed could be seen as coming to rival the ancient city once again.  Among those Nolli employed in his project , Piranesi developed a similar intensive focus on the ancient monuments that survived in the city and ensuring their preservation in a single cartographical form. Piranesi’s involvement in the project of preserving the entire cityscape from 1741 would inform his later assembly of what he saw as disjointed fragments of its urban plan.

Nolli offered a triumphant encomiastic vision of its continuity for the “enlightened” pope Benedict XIV as a celebration of the elegant expansion of the city as a built space.  To do so, Nolli applied new arts of surveying he innovated that combination craft and art to transcribe that new expanse and the monument of Rome from the restored Capitoline to St. Peter’s itself, as if to illustrate the organic coherence that the city had attained that advanced the visual argument of the extent to which the city surpassed its former fragmentation.  Rather than recuperate a past organic whole, in other words, Nolli celebrated the achievement of a new sense of organic presence within the historical Aurelian walls.  Benedict XIV openly ought to elevate the place of Rome within networks of learning that he knew so well, both in Italy and abroad, so as to place it on the intellectual map of Europe once more, and the Nolli plan figuratively as well as literally did so, illustrating technical capacities to map the Holy city in unprecedented detail and do so by the most recent surveying techniques.

The cartographical choices of these plans of antiquities constituted a strikingly different strategy than the plans of earlier cartographers.  The massive multi-sheet map Nolli created for Benedict XIV presented an image of the continued and sustained magnificence of buildings within the papal city, whose crisp contours captured and celebrated the current expansion of the city within its ancient walls, in a Grande Pianta that balanced the habitatand the disabitato within the Aurelian walls, even as it celebrated the architectural triumphs that had remade Rome as a cosmopolitan center which had regained its earlier integrity if not its past expanse.  The stark precision of the mid-eighteenth-century plan of the Roman cartographer and architect Giambattista Nolli (1701-1756), whose multi-sheet plan is particularly striking for its contrast to this entanglement–perhaps because of the extent to which it organized space as a uniform continuity.  It may have met a commission to disentangle the historicity of its monuments from the city over which the papacy presided:  if one in which the church and papacy oversaw the perfection of its spatial order out of the possibility of historical confusion of space, investing an increasing clarity in the city’s layout that would be widely mistaken for objectivity.

Viewers of Nolli’s map could discern the unified spatial order of the city as if stripped down and clarified from its historical past, removed from its clanging bells and overhead arcs of birds, and from the water carried to the city that reappears in its many fountains, as if the urban space is disentangled and unfolded from its past and represented under the aegis of the church:  the surety of his cartographical line seems a clarification of the city under papal auspices, removing the city from the shadow of past futures lying in its ruins and revealing streets’ precise course, orientation and often varying widths, thereby allowing one to disentangle it from overlapping layers of historical time.  The surveying table which Nolli had innovated for transcribing urban space map seems secondary to the surety of line and shading, dark but legible lettering and fonts to render the city’s plan legible–transcribing its clustered public spaces by numbers that can be read without any unwanted crowding of cartographical space.


11  The cartographer offered a satisfying purification of the disposition of urban space.  The elegant trompe l’oeil masterwork of Nolli reserved Rome’s complex topography in the mid eighteenth century in ways that had rare been able to be previously registered.  Engraved on eighteen folio sheets of paper, surrounded by monuments, that invited viewers to survey the copious detail that is encoded in multiple pleasurable ways.  If the commission from Benedict XIV invited the architect to survey Rome to demarcate its 14 traditional rioni or districts, the striking detail of noting each building and square contained a proliferating abundance of information rather than proposing the city be comprehended by a simple bird’s-eye view, wrestling with the complicated alignment of axial urban streets, most of which lie oddly askew to one another with a crisp clarity and focus of unprecedented detail and accurate measure as they could perceive it in stunning detail.


rome's center?


Nolli’s adept transcriptino of its architectural artifice clarifies the complex historical layering of Rome, and the multiple perspectives that comprehend the construction of a new architectural identity atop the past, may seem the subject of the particularly dense engraving, that pairs regions of the uninhabited Rome–Roma Disabitata, between the inhabited center and the city’s Aurelian walls–with the streets and buildings, pairing the black stretches of the city street plan with the elegant cartouches on the floating scrollwork. Indeed, the putti that hold the legend of the Pianta and lie at its base with the surveyors’ table and viewing device that Nolli had innovated are not purely ornamental:  the table offered the a the almost divine aid for transferring a multiplicity of surveying points to a single surface and bringing one’s attention to bear on multiple sites and focal points in the baroque city in ways impossible for the individual human eye, offering a special form of assistance to Benedict XIV’s demand to measure the city’s regions.

The crisply cut clarity with which it rendered streets and buildings preserve a sense of sharp observation that, mutates mutant, would be received as a standard of the objectively empirical future mapping of urban space.  Indeed, the whitespace of its streets, squares and serpentine rivers appear a crisply defined as an aerial view of a city after freshly fallen snow–as was the case when a blizzard of January 2016 placed the street plan of L’Enfant’s Washington, D.C. under expansive snow cover in this recent RapidEye Satellite view.



Jan 24 2016 DC Snow In.pngRapidEye Satellite View ©PlanetLabs, Inc.


12.  The massive achievement of the Grande Pianta is perhaps most present in its preservation of urban spaces in a now largely rebuilt mid-eighteenth century city, but its framing of urban space with monumental views provided a basis for rendering the physical presence of the city’s physical plant–whose rapid reprinting in the same year, ringed by views of the city’s monuments, inaugurated the tradition of inviting viewers to place monuments in an accurate network that preserves all their actual asymmetry, as measured by a surveyor’s plane-table and a magnetic compass, which he referred to the meridian inlaid in the marble floor of the Roman church of S. Maria degli Angeli from 1702.  As well as offering what Alan Ceen called the “continuum of accessible urban space” in the rebuilt city inherited from the Renaissance and Baroque, the image made good on the etymological promise of ichnography, a term adopted from the ancient builder Vitruvius, as combining writing with pictures to offer a legible record of the urban space.  It is an architect’s map, and was collaborated on in a second edition with Nolli’s fellow-architect Giambattista Piranesi, whose prospective views of Rome elaborated its precision.

Suspended by a pair of poised putti, the topography of the ancient city is revealed to viewers who can delight in views of the Vatican, obelisk in Piazza San Pietro and Gregorian University, as well as the towers of its medieval churches, as if to convert the eight years of labor the architect Nolli devoted to his quite savvy map such an apparent labor of love–as much as demand that they pour over the details encoded in each of the city blocks that Nolli used a drafting table to painstakingly survey with instruments of his own device to allow him to draw its complex street-plan in an “ichnographic view” as if nested in a panorama, suspended by weightless putti who unscrew its map and legend before the viewer’s eye.  For all its baroque visually distracting elements of scrollwork, the inset map of the city employs actual dimensions of each street, based on Nolli’s own personal gauging the shifting width of every street corner, thoroughfare and piazza within its walls as if to decode the curious combination of ancient monuments while preserving a lightness of touch of the numbered legend that unrolls in a weightless fashion beneath a putto‘s left leg, as if delicately pinned by his knee, as he raises the troupe l’oeil map, or the cartouche on which another putto reclines.  Whatever heaviness exists in its darkly lined buildings, they seem temporarily transfigured by the weightlessness that inheres in the map’s stunning achievement.


Nolli_map1Nolli Map Engine


The majesty of the map masks any breaks in the individual sheets of the large ichnographic view and pastiche panorama of the ancient city, caput mundi through which the river Tiber sinuously and somewhat timelessly curves:  if the very term “ichnography” evokes the horizontal sections of each of its buildings plans recalls Nolli’s architectural expertise, it also recalls the term used by the ancient Roman Vitruvius’ widely glossed educational treatise on architecture (1.2), it is apposite as a combination of tracing and writing.   For any map of the city of Rome is a testimonial, the engraving reminds us, of the city that has continuously stood at the site of the ancient city, as well as of the city that occupies its site.  The place of diminutive spectators who crowd its lower right, awed by the immensity of detail that the map encompasses, condensed in the images on the 1744 version of the Capitoline hill–the seat of Rome’s civic government–and St. Peter’s and the radical shifts in its built and unbuilt environments.


St. Peters:CityNolli Map Engine


“La Nuova Topographa di Roma” illustrates Nolli’s artifice of mapping a seamless whole of a city spanning epochs, architectural styles, and street plans.  The iconography of the map is now viewable in detail online in interactive form that is the culmination of the many years of study Ceen devoted to this map’s unique construction and two professors from the University of Oregon who have worked with a large team to allow us to explore the endeavor that the architect Nolli pursued for eight years from 1736 to 1745:  the zoomable virtual version, if a bit slow to load, reveals the attention to the innovative instruments of surveying by which Nolli sought to measure the complexly shifting outlines of the space of Rome’s streets against its hilly topography, empty fields, and turning Tiber–as if the surveyed city floated over the multiple periods of time encompassed in its actuality.

But the transcription of a plan of accurately preserved dimensions of streets of varied width in individual microcosms of its neighborhoods and seem oddly angled to one another are somewhat secondary to the sense that the seventeenth-century ground plan marks the expansion of the city’s actual re-habitation on a scale that seemed to rival antiquity in the actual elegance of its built environment.  Whereas many of the maps of the city had mapped its ancient ruins from Leon Battista Alberti in the mid-fifteenth century to Pirro Ligorio in the mid-sixteenth–as the trade in engravings that sold most briskly in Rome showed the majesty of the city’s antiquities and marbled monuments from St. Peter’s obelisk to the Campidoglio’s civic government–the map celebrated the scale of the current city’s construction, and its own comprehension of its so distinctively layered urban topography of a city which had still not filled the Aurelian walls, but had reached a new level of architectural splendor and grandiosity–in a massive act of historical reconstruction whose monumentality might have inspired Freud for the tactile contact that it offered to an earlier time.


La topografia di Roma detailNolli’s Nuova Topografia (detail of lower border)


The mapmaker’s inventive iconography seems as impressive as the city as a whole, and the putti who push open the top of its imagined scroll to reveal a legend and dedication that almost detach from the map’s surface mask the huge labor of surveying each of its streets.


1317046444412_Aletta_03-1Ministero dei beni e delle attività culturali e del turismo/Giovan Battista Nolli, Ignazio Benedetti (incisore)


13.  The relatively recent collaboratively developed interactive website helps allow viewers to better grasp the scale of Nolli’s historical reconstruction of the ancient city.  For it allows viewers to explore the material construction of the map in detail offers an attempt to examine the footprints of each of the buildings that it includes, and appreciate the imposition of a vision of apparent harmony that the map in its Renaissance and Baroque topography, and the pleasure that the map now has in making this lost Rome present at an unprecedented scale.  Nolli’s map has long been seen as a monumental cartographical achievement, but the detailed scrutiny of each of its alley ways, piazza, and even church interiors provide a way of navigating the structure of the lost city in a way that few visitors could have access, but which is also wonderfully evocative of any experience of a visitor to contemporary Rome, who can vicariously extend their own experiences of the city to what Nolli so exactingly measured, recorded and engraved with benefit of his sighting table.

As much as preserve the accuracy of the width and shifting course of each of the streets of Rome, which were surveyed in ways to preserve their measurements in the Nolli plan, that reflected both the rebuilt and human format of the cityscape that was stamped by papal authority, but also by multiple piazza, individual streets, and built environment, creating a record of the achievements of recent constructions sensitive to the layers of historical negotiation of its public space in Rome:


Trevi and Palazzo PontificioNolli Map Engine


The result was a sensitive record that promised to clarify the legibility of the complexly crafted urban space, often using the sharp contrast of dark grey that signify buildings or built space to call attention to the civic spaces that provided a counterpart and counterpoint to the density of its darkened blocks of built space:


Navna:Minerva:PantheonNolli Map Engine


The images allow one to trace dotted itineraries of pilgrimage to its ancient sanctuaries, long the subject of so many earlier maps of Rome, and the purported subject of Sixtus V’s late sixteenth-century expansion of its roadways, and still the source of much of the spiritual capital of this seat of the Christian church.  But the itineraries of devotion are in a sense secondary to the build space of the city and the churches and monuments whose floorpans Nolli seems to include in the street plan–which remarkably remained the base-map of the city that public authorities employed until the 1970s, and viewed as authoritative through the late nineteenth century.

The underlying network of the 14 rioni that divide the city can be read, if with difficulty, on the crowded urban landscape keyed with over 300 items, and the close relation of built and unbuilt areas that was so long a characteristic of the city, lovingly rendered against the flowing course of the River Tiber, whose waters are delineated in shades of grey–


BUILT:UNbuilrtNolli Map Engine


–as greys allowed Nolli to foreground the substantial bulk of the built environment of modern Rome’s monuments with a crisp clarity that truly seemed modern.


rome's center?Nolli Map Engine


In 1748, when the monumental map first appeared–conspicuously dedicated to the Enlightenment Pope Benedict XIV–it constituted a “new topography” of an ancient city. The Pianta Grande di Roma Nolli  created by new tools as the surveying table, pictured beside the Capitoline hill–the  site from which the humanist Leon Battista Alberti earlier famously surveyed Rome’s monuments and ruins for his circle of humanist friends for them to envision accurate measurements of the ancient built city within its ruins.


dedication of nuova topografia

Capitoline and drafting toolNolli Map Engine


The sighting tool that Nolli seems to have developed proved an accurate way to gauge the shifting breadth of Rome’s streets, quite approximately perpendicular and all too often sinuous products of the accretion of multiple architectural choices to be traced previously in comparably exact detail.


Ben XIV endhanced surveyor's tablet and putto Nolli Map Engine


The 2005 interactive virtual map crafted with such exquisite detail at the University of Oregon, run by Jim Tice of Oregon’s Department of Architecture and Erik Steiner of its Department of Geography with InfoGraphics Lab, the result is Nolli Map Engine 1.0, offering a way to examine Nolli’s choices in detail, and illuminates the multiple historical frames of reference that the Nolli map comprehends.  The interactive map allows one to focus in on specific neighborhoods in a sometimes frustrating but usable way, and toggle between the map and satellite images of the city that suggest its homogeneity in ways that are abstracted form the lived experience of daily life, and increase its legibility by highlighting the river, fountains, or monuments of Rome.


14.  Freud famously saw the Third Rome as a site of promise–and potential enjoyment–somehow more immediate in its pleasures than the Christian city of popes.  Nolli’s dream of a comprehensive vision makes a nice point of contrast and counterpoint to the famous sectorization of the city in the pioneering cinematic director Roberto Rossellini’s wartime Rome:  Open City, or Roma, Città Aperta, when the Gestapo officer Bergmann has divided and conquered the human canvas of the city into fourteen zones in order better to capture and defeat the members of the continued urban Resistance through his network of spies, hoping to infiltrate the pockets of resistance that have continued in the occupied city–and which form the focus of the film’s plot.  The air of supreme remove with which the Nazi officer dispassionately analyses the overlays set atop the lived city’s  enumerated sectors erases its multi-centered space, replacing the city with a simulacrum that Bergmann believes he can survey through his police spies and pierce the secrets of its inhabitants and resistance groups or Romoletto.  

In policing the city that they have occupied–now rendered an “open” city, and a site for transporting munitions, opened by its invaders, the map is a todos for the relation that the Nazi invaders hope to achieve by controlling its population and eliminating the members of the resistance that continue to haunt its streets.  The map presents so powerful an image in Roberto Rossellini’s film as an image of fascist intelligence that it occupies the entire screen every so often as a haunting image of the specter of total control–even as its monuments are being contemporaneously destroyed or threatened with destruction from possible allied bombing raids that would unintentionally have targeted its ancient structures.


BB68T0 movie,

“Rome – Open City”, (Roma, citty aperta), ITA, 1945, director: Roberto Rossellini



city bombed


The imposition of alternative fonts that overlay one another in the film’s title frame echoes the imposition of a new sort of order on an organic city after its invasion and occupation by German troops–the breaking of its walls and transformation to an “open city”–as if to concretize the alternate visions of the city that occupiers and resistance hold, a contrast made more dramatic given that it was filmed in the black period of occupation it documents:


Open City


The black capital font letters that blanket the panoramic view of the city’s crowded buildings is almost an echo of the black font used to describe the neighborhoods and rioni in Nolli’s map, as if they were somehow embedded and interwoven with the lived texture of its human geography.  The Nolli map casts the city as a site, perhaps of redemption and imagined integrity, but never indicates or includes the lived city that inhabits its space, and is eerily absent from the sharply drawn grey of its street plan or somehow lies underneath its idealized image of the city’s streets.

Was the imagined integrity of the map only as illusory, and as constructed, as the wartime  sectorization of the city into clear divisions of policing by the invading German soldiers?  Or was it just another attempt to extricate the city from history, endowing it with a legibility that removes it from the historicity that is the most palpable and immediate way to encounter its human geography?  Freud offered an answer, in taking the complexity of its anachronic geography as an analogue or emblem of the successive lamination of memories within the organic whole of the individual human mind.  But the map is only as good as its message.  Considering the potential role that the maps he consulted continued to have as models for thinking about the mind, one might do well to ask not only about the cultural work that such maps continue to do, but the very nature of the cognitive work that maps continue to perform across different media.





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Mapping the Material Surplus on the US-Mexico Border Fence

The accumulated surplus already along the US-Mexico border is challenging to map.  While the border is a simple line–and the expanded border zone is a vast territory, challenging for viewers to process in its expanse, whose scope is particularly challenging to grasp in human detail in its lived experience.  We can’t process the scope of the surplus even by exploring their copious content, or the experience border-crossing from an on the ground perspective.  Recent explorations by photographer Richard Misrach of its human experience–abandoned detritus and intentional markers of cross-border transit–remap the construction of the border zone so challenging to capture in a territorial map.

For the accumulated military surplus along border boundary is less a clear divide, than a means of creating a territory of its own within the growing border area:   Misrach’s photographs map intensive fieldwork of the region of the border that try to comprehend the scale of its presence for those on its other side or who traverse the border zone–an experience entirely omitted from even the most comprehensive maps of its daunting scale and expansion, which reveal the growing presence that “the border,” border area and the growing expanse of transborder regions have already gained–a scale that can in part capture the significant role that the debates about a border fence or barrier have gained in the 2016 United States presidential election.  Indeed, as the transborder region has dramatically expanded with the expansion of cross-border trade since NAFTA in 2004, the expansion of the transborder region has been widely neglected, and rarely mapped.  The attention the photographic mapping of the human experience of border crossing–evident in the abandoned detritus and remains of cross-border transit–present a ghostly counter-map to the expanded border region.  This human map is all too often unfortunately overlooked, even with increased attention Republican presidential candidates have paid to remapping a closed border and constructing a border wall, a project that seems to erase or remove the broad area of cross-border traffic that occurs within the immense region that surrounds the physical border–whose sociological expansion is so oddly conveniently erased by any project of wall building along a region that increasingly demands to be recognized as part of the United States.


img-1.pngBarajas/Sisto/Gaytán/Cantú/Hidalgo López (2014)


Most boundaries between states are regularly rendered in maps by dotted lines, as if to recall milestones–miliaria–placed at regular intervals on perimeters of lands or counties in earlier times.  But the borer strip that is embedded in an expanded border area is a site of increasing surveillance that seems to engrave itself on the land.  To map the proposed building of a fence along the 2, 428 mile border between Mexico and the United States reveals a the expansion of the policing of the national borderspace, erasing its past status as a transit zone.

In an age of globalization, borders are increasingly not only policed, but managed at a distance from their crossing lines–and increasingly invoked in Presidential elections as if they have become the primary charges of governmental management.  Constructed to symbolize and symbolically represent sovereign authority, the overbuilt border seems staged a spectacle to impede human movement and to monitor and erase, individual experience, and to bolster the appropriately faceless authority of the state.  Borders once the creation of shared conventions, are colonized by an apparatus designed to impose state authority on helpless individuals, and constructed at massive expense as artifacts that seem to exist only as they violently intersect with actual lived experience.


gettyimages-74958843Getty Images



Misrach, Border SignsRichard Misrach/Wall, Jacumba, California (2009)


The notion that a Presidential campaign can claim the construction of a continuous border barrier sealing the frontier along Mexico’s sovereign territory suggests the degree to which borders become a means to assert failing claims to sovereignty, and to claim the new identity of the nation-state.  How the border gained such broad purchase on the national imaginary is unclear, and may require another post–but the incommensurability of the alleged solution and the situation on the ground demands empirical evaluation.  Revisiting the spectacle of the border and the suffering it creates engages broad advocacy to the continuous wall advocated alike by such presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz–and the even greater explicit violence they serve by of subjecting social life of border-crossing to surveillance in the name of national security.

And so it is apt that, in Border Cantos, a recent collaboration between photographer Richard Misrach and Mexican-born composer Guillermo Galindo:  their collaboration bears witness to the expansion of the border’s imprint on the lives of migrants in incredibly moving ways, by asking viewers to evaluate the costs of the overbuilt structure of the fence, and assembling the artifacts and unintended traces that were found and collected about the border–traces accidentally left by actual migrants from backpacks to sneakers to books to children’s clothing and dolls to the spent shotgun shells that targeted migrants or the bicycles used to overcome border barriers–to reflect their social experience.   These remains are human traces that do not appear on any actual map, of course, but are the remains of the violence that is enacted on how national boundaries are mapped–and the continued violence of the experience of border crossing that intersects with the broad security apparatus on either side of the border fence.  As if to accompany Misrach’s photographs of the human geography of the borderlands–a largely empty space with few humans and only scattered human markers and material possessions–Galindo fashioned musical instruments to generate sounds specific to the surreal fraught space of the overbuilt borderlands.  Such ephemera pale in contrast to the experience of migrants, to be sure, but offer both avenues of empathy and proofs of the brutality with which sovereign authority intersects with the mundane everyday at the border walls, in the built space that runs across the emptiness of the desert borderlands.




As if emblematic of the need to police the identity and safety of the nation in a time of economic uncertainty and unease at globalization and an apparent loss of jobs, the project of wall-building has become, for both Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, emblematic of the demand to rebuild the state–“Make America Great Again”–to which he claims to dedicate his campaign.  The proposal to build an extended and invigorated border fence to gird the southern perimeter of the United States has come to be a potent symbol of resistance to globalization–and indeed an emblem of creating a strong country, as in “Making America Great Again“–before imagined augmentation dangers posed by the passage across porous borders, ranging from the transportation of drugs to the entrance of criminal threats or threats to American jobs.   From the decision of Congress in 2007, in the Bush presidency, to dedicate $1.5 billion to fence construction along hundreds of miles of the border, even if the budget has steadily risen since 2013, Trump’s call to seal off the border to expand the 3,900 items of excess equipment the Customs and Border Patrol has already inherited from the U.S. Defense Department as of a year ago, in hopes to rebuild an even more spectacularly obstructive border fence.

For the division between the two nations, while serving no real interests, has become an embodiment of consensus seeming to address the “problem” of cross-border migration–without acknowledging the fate of migrants.  After the opening of economic borders in NAFTA–mistakenly seen as emblematic of an out-sourcing of jobs and diminishing of national autonomy–is met by the spectacle of wall-building, as if definitively sealing the border protects national interests and illustrates strength.  The spectacle of the border-wall matches the expansion of technologies of border surveillance, as an accumulation of political capital, whose spectacle of authority erases or aims to erase hopes of asylum and social life.  The unmasking of the spectacle of wall-building and the increased apparatuses of surveillance combining radar, sonar, and seismic detection technologies to track and monitor cross-border movement, whose accumulation is already apparent in a surveillance networks of tower-mounted cameras, airplanes, drones and blimps that serve to create a virtual wall as a network of registration that subjects the social experience to an increasing repositioning of state-formation along our borders.


1.  The appeal of the construction of the border is not only an artifact of the great builder, The Donald.  It is a rebuilding of national space–even though it lies outside of its margins, and would offer few benefits for its actual residents, if not create a crisis of cross-border relations as a rejection of human rights designed to frustrate the countries’ relationships.  While immensely popular among Trump’s constituents, the wall is a denial of migrants’ experience.  The project of the ongoing restatement and reiteration of the southern perimeter of the United States is difficult to map, for it is no longer about only the boundary of the national territory, but desperately deserves to be mapped in terms of the expanding surplus of the apparatus of surveillance and build-up of border-management about the fence–a complex system increasingly incumbent to be mapped across its 1,969 miles the starts some seventy feet out in the Pacific Ocean.

Yet the proposed fence divides populations that in point of fact have long overlapped, if not sovereign jurisdiction, and continue to separate individuals from their relatives and families–subjecting social experience to an increasingly evident state.  The performative construction of the border boundary wall–an apparently unending project of construction  presents a spectacular symbolic construction of the state, designed to efface identities of individuals–particularly the most vulnerable identities of border-crossing migrants.  As if in response to this brutal mapping of human space, the fates of migrants are the subject of a powerful multi-media artistic collaboration between photographer Richard Misrach and composer Guillermo Galindo.  For if the spectacle of the US-Mexico wall suggests a gambit by a state losing faith in its authority, imposing itself on the long-sanctioned crossing of the US-Mexico border, and impeding traffic that has long existed in the border-region by ensconcing the border region in a militarized cloak, as if to render invisible actual problems of migration and distract from the fates of immigrants– whose experiences are effectively erased by the growing military apparatus of the state.


Misrach-Target Practice.pngRichard Misrach, Border Patrol Target Range, Boca Chica Highway, Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge


The building of the border barrier seems a screen on which to impose to impose our own images and fantasies of the state–far departing from its earlier functions as a zone of travel.  Now monitored by brightly lit and carefully landscaped as a region of government control, Misrach and Galindo have depicted it as a landscape needing to be mapped as one that both abstracts and effaces the extremely precarious identities of thousands migrants, many of whose stories are daily lost and effaced by circumstances.   For the wall addresses those seeking to enter the US and other developed countries–in sharp contrast to the poverty of the region, it allows them to feel the authority of the state before their attempts at transit, and pens them in as subjects of observation rather than as desperate poor.  The series of photographs and musical accompaniments in Border Cantos aims to rescue their experience, allowing us to inhabit the marginal spaces into which refugees are daily forced, and recuperate the way in which migrants mark space around the border wall–as new sorts of border signs.


arizona-mexico-border.jpgSamantha Sais/REUTERS (Naco, Arizona; March 29, 2013)


arid ground borderone.png

border signs.png


Border Scarecrows--MisrachRichard Misrach, details from photographs in Border Cantos


2. The accumulation of political capital and state authority on the border is in part a growth of the massive budget dedicated to Homeland Security, designed to militarize areas of cross-border transit, but reflects the accumulation of expansive border surveillance built since 1990, but massively expanding in recent years.  Since the US-Mexico boundary was first defined after the early twentieth-century border wars, the zone has atrophied as one of migrants’ deaths, and of failed transit, as much as cross-border traffic by which it was long characterized.  Early attempts to police the boundary established the border line at fixed stations, distinct from the desire to prevent border crossing.  But the “Virtual Border Patrols” understanding by states like Texas, to track possible migrants by hidden cameras on private lands to track suspicious activities that ostensibly target drug traffic, such as the semi-autonomous Texas Governor’s Virtual Border Watch Program.  And even though the number of those once caught attempting to traverse the enforced borderline had steadily declined during the 1990s, hitting a four-decade low in 2011–as the wall was first built–the gradual rise of apprehensions those seen as “illegal” border-crossers has grown as federal agents have sought increasing amounts of high-tech gear, in ways that stand to technologize the border, and a broader project of expanding multi-million dollar surveillance projects to track cross-border movements, and indeed treat the borderlands as if it were truly a cordon sanitaire and threat to the public good.





Oddly, the imagined fence suggests a building project, removed from its space or , but reassuring in its assuaging of the phantasma of the arrival of migrants, undocumented or illegal, cast in antiquated metaphors from outdated projects of public health as bacilli or agents of infection and disease, poised to enter the country, and in need of quarantine–rather than as situated in a specific human topography and geography of its own.





The accumulation of an overbuilt boundary exists less as an area of transit, of course, than as a dehumanization of the experience of the figure of the migrant.  As it has expanded to accommodate a growing technology of border management, designed to manage and control the experience of the individual migrant, the accumulated structures of the border wall have grown from a set of .   As such, it suggests a visible expansion of the idea of a surplus of state authority.  Indeed, at a time when the number of undocumented border crossings has declined, the fear of the managing of a border crisis, personified in the figure of the migrant and the migrant’s movement, have led to the hypertrophied project of fence-construction, whose architecture has become symbolic of the management of the border, and of the management of the territorial state–in the face of the duration and extent of historical exchanges across a boundary once particularly permeable, but which the assertion of a border barrier to demarcate sovereign bounds, drawing a line which fails to reflect the actual distribution of population on the ground–but has entered their lives.


Mexicon-Origiin Population.pngEconomist/US Census


Or, even, the permeability of the border for those currently born in Mexico, which the symbolism of recent plans to rebuild a border wall all too conveniently ignores–


mexican-born-percent-map-970.jpgUnited States Census


3.  The progressive reiteration of the overly built-up boundary has defined the border as a region with its own space and its own obstacles to a transit zone.  The result is both challenging to map but in their material abundance a territory apart from either country.  The human costs and toll of its overwhelming construction simply cannot be communicated by a broken line of dashes any more.  Indeed, rather than mapping the end of a territorial state, the array of tools of border management–surveillance cameras, trigger wires, infrared night goggles, and digital and satellite mapping tools–aimed at tracking all cross-border movement, as if to create a barrier wall around the nation to impose order on increasing unwieldy confusion between the figure of migrant, illegal immigrant, undocumented immigrant, illegal alien, and unauthorized immigrant.  The heterogeneous border barriers are built as an impassable zone of containment, inadequately symbolized by conventions which fail to register the accumulated surplus of human pain and suffering that they also create.  For one can’t forget that the border barrier is fundamentally a human spectacle, even if it is also all too easily imagined as an illustration and extension of the power of the state that now exists as an independent border zone–pushed beyond the demarcation of the actual border line.



If the border is the confine of the territorial state, and a line of crossing, has the wall exercised its appeal as an architecture of control and supervision that is being increasingly defined as a policed zone.  At the same time as the notion of such a simple frontier has almost, as John Pickles has suggested, met its end as an effective tool of border management, the expansion of the border as a zone that erases social experience and individual identity seems to inaugurate a new stage in the build-up of state involvement on its margins–evident in the Migration Stations, shelters and detention centers that have grown up about the border to detain migrants in Mexico, most arriving from other countries than Mexico, and the terrifying rise of apprehensions in recent years.  Does the expression of the technologies of managing the border respond to expanded fears of the threat of trans-border migration, and a reflect a need to control human experience by border management, as much as address problems of human movement across borders–including thousands of unaccompanied children?




Pew Border Apprehension Data.pngPew Research/Department of Defense Declassified FOUO



To understand the border as but a fence ignores the range of practices of border management that are increasingly difficult to map–and the ways that they confront with the paths of individual migrants.  How to include the experience of the migrant–and indeed the eradication of this experience–in a map?  The question is important to pose, since the increasingly over-built border barriers constitute not simply an obstacle but  a complex of structures and apparatuses of surveillance that reflect the power of the state, in almost performative ways, and generate a terrifying graveyard and tragic museum of lost objects and lives.  How can we evoke and remember the huge material surplus of the fence, the scale of whose inhumane proportions creates one of the most conspicuous if most unseen monuments of the later twentieth century?

The dramatic spike of investment by the United States government on the border between the US and Mexico since the presidency of George W. Bush has been the subject of increased media attention during the 2016 Presidential Election, as Donald Trump has rehabilitated as a motif of the dire need to mobilize to protect American interests.  But the monumental construction of the 1990s redefined the border as a zone which the selective criteria of maps are inadequate.  The notion of sending the military to enforce the boundary, earlier a far-right proposal associated with the media-stunt by then-KKK Grand Wizard David Duke’s “Klan Border Watch”  of 1975, allegedly to reduce border crossings, has been oddly rehabilitated in the public imagination by the attention that Trump, himself a builder, has dedicated to the wall, as if to boost the credibility of his transition to what he sees as political concerns.  For the wall promises to be not only a massive misdirection of public funds, in a Trump Administration, as well as a boondoggle that would not only deteriorate US-Mexican relations, but fails to address the poor sanitation, public health, and endemic poverty that the neglect of the border as a region can only augment.

The border’s material surplus is less a reflection of national interests than a disaster of human geography.  The vertical fencing that now runs along the Mexico’s northern border indeed serve as far more than a discouragement and imposition of space.  For the heterogeneous barrier built largely by US Military creates a brutal space whose considerable human costs go neglected in any maps.  The placement at great cost of border barriers of tall steel vertical bars, most filled with concrete, alternate with Normandy fencing, barbed wire fences, beside regularly smoothed paths of sand designed to track any trespasser.  The United States has sought to create what was at first a very heterogeneous discontinuous space remarkable for how it has loomed so large in the American imaginary since the 1990s, when it was first redefined by border barriers inefficiently constructed from reserve military material surplus.

Continued expansion of investment in obstacles to hinder and police undocumented poor who try to enter the United States has created a no-man’s-land incommensurate with its magnification in the American public’s spatial imaginary, which condense in particularly phantasmagoric manner the twin tendencies of insularity and intervention Henry Adams saw long ago as twin currents in American history.  As the Great Wall of China was reimagined as evidence of an unbroken perimeter, the eager investment in its militarization has created a zone littered with casualties of “illegal” border crossing, from kidnappings to corpses, a rising risk of death stretching from transit points from Tijuana to Nogales to Juárez to Laredo to the Rio Grande, dramatically increasing risks of death for any aspiring immigrants attempting cross-border transit.  In ways that recall the work of the anthropologist Jason de Leon, and his Undocumented Migration Project, material objects migrants who attempted or completed transit discard provide a poetic counterpoint to mute mappings of the border that erases human presence.  Rendered in expansive photographs of the border’s landscape by Misrach and incarnated into sound by Galindo, and offer an opportunity to meditate on its effects on those attempting migration across its expanse–of which lost personal items, as this discarded Barbie, left by a child attempting to cross the border, offer poignant traces of human tracks that the built border seeks to overwhelm and erase.

What more civilizing function can art have than to give them voice?


border Barbie.pngNPR/Borderland


Given its impressive and physically daunting extent, the mapping of people–the actual individuals who encounter the construction–in direct relation to the border is less easy accomplished than tracking its existence, as one can easily do through Google Earth.  But how to map the material amassing of the fantasy of sealing of the southern frontier by a barrier cannot be mapped adequately without assessing its steep human costs, in ways incommensurate with quantitative, statistical and symbolic tools.  The border might be best seen as a quasi-autonomously administered zone amassing built projects and obstacles created abutting a sequence of federally owned lands–

Federal Lands.png


–which has gained its own identity as a porous corridor over time, or a graveyard of deaths, a no-man’s-land dividing both countries with deadly consequences–





Center for Global Development


–or rather a  frontier-land, from which many avert eyes and awareness at the peril of ignoring the unique resources and ecosystems that effects both countries–up to 90% of whose population lives in fourteen urban areas, often as sister cities that are the primary paths of trans-boundary movement, across four American and six Mexican states, but whose poverty and heightened health risks uniquely distinguish the region’s settlement.


Draft Border:EPA Regions

Draft Border, EPA (1996)


3.  The promotion of an increasingly militarized policy for organizing the border in the past twenty or so years has created material surplus that realize an imagined boundary of confinement along the southwestern states, often using items of military surplus to do so, whose human effects are increasingly apparent, if widely ignored.  The segments of fence that have been built over twenty years, with less concern for the communities on both sides of the border or changing conditions of migration, has been primarily designed to thwart undocumented immigrants and ensure a poorly conceived project of “Homeland Security.”  Around the fencing lie traces of the individual itineraries of undocumented migrants who attempted to cross the monumental border boundary, but whose individual movement across borders the built complex of the border walls seem to seek to obscure.

By tracking the human possessions and signs of human presence about the fence, the collaborative art project between Berkeley-based photographer Richard Misrach and Oakland-based composer Guillermo Galindo captures, recovering the individual perspective of the border landscape and objects found along its expanse, to communicate the experience of undocumented migrants.  The human remapping of the military boondoggle of the fence that so dramatically expanded during the George W. Bush’s administration provides an opportune subject for the quite productive and challenging multi-media artistic collaboration between photographer Misrach and composer  Galindo.  Their collaboration combines aural and visual aspects of artistic performance about the wall that serves to report on all too easily forgotten human conditions of the borderspace which cannot be confined to one national boundary.  The spellbinding result is to grapple with the unmappability of the presence so misleadingly described as a “fence.”  By repurposing the documentation of the presence of the discontinuous border barrier across space, the hope is to excavate a lost human geography of the multiple itineraries of those seeking to cross the borderland not so much by statistics of apprehensions, border-crossings, or patrols, but from a range of ephemera, traces and detritus found beside or in proximity to the border fence that define its liminal space–its architecture largely shaped by American authorities, but whose experience remains separate from them.


border objects


Given the extent of the border, and the lack of need for fencing around its impassable areas, it’s not surprising that only a third of the border is obstructed by fencing.  Yet the accumulation of “fencing” has metastasized to monumental proportions that can’t be adequately rendered in a single or set of maps–as a Janus-faced monument of insularity and outward aggression whose violence Misrach and Galindo reveal in ways that the gaps along the actual border fences that stretch from Tijuana to Brownsville only suggest, and the absurdity of the vast imposition of such a project upon a human geography of the land.


1:3 border is fenced  NPR.png


The border boundaries have become a liminal space of their own.  And it’s become nearly impossible to map the terrifying nature of the in-between status that non-contiguous sections of imposing fencing have created across the borderland.  While built to prevent “unwanted” or undocumented border-crossing, the “fence” of steel, concrete and barbed wire barriers express an odd investment in the insularity of the United States.  Such order boundaries stand as odd public monuments to the absence of a border policy, symbolic constructions that quite messily link patriotism, terror, and inhumanity to improvise a “twenty-first century” border of inhumane proportions, removed from the topography of death that surrounds them but registering an increasingly militarized relation to space, national borders, and landscape on which the recent collaboration between Misrach and composer Galindo reflects, beyond the massive and indeed disorienting accumulation of capital that now exists about the border, ostensibly to apprehend drug smugglers, undocumented migrants, and increasing numbers of unaccompanied minors.

If one can try to map the number of illegal border crossings, plot the metrics of drug seizures at border crossings over time,–


Marijuana on us Mexborder.pngCenter for Investigative Reporting


or use Google Earth to chart its multiple gaps–


Google Earth:Matt Stiles.pngNPR/Matt Stiles


the accumulation of investment in surveillance apparatuses along stretches of the border constitutes the border as a zone of enacting the force of the state, as much as constituting a border.  The force of enforcement means that borderlands both replace and displace the border-line, overwhelming the notion of a boundary that simply divided national states.


4.  The human geography by which border barriers so violently intersect with spatial itineraries of undocumented migrants remain impossible to adequately comprehend.  The set of non-contiguous fences that were first erected along the border since a small, fourteen-mile long section of welded steel was built south of San Diego in 1990 have come to exert an excessive force on absent individuals as well as occupy a large place in the nation’s spatial imaginary.  Their prominence in the public imagination is driven by a material surplus that has accumulated with state funding, and was reinvigorated by the Homeland Security Department and again by the 2005 Secure Border Initiative, and filling an ever-growing insatiable demand for manufacturing surveillance on the borderland.  Despite some questioning of the limited effectiveness as obstacles to deter cross-border traffic, the barricades seem symbolic constructions of strength, built from portable touchdown pads remaining from the Vietnam war or concrete poured around rebar, in an never-ending art project of inscribing authority directly on the land. Without clear ways of addressing an imagined influx of immigrants–in fact, often unaccompanied children–the architecture of the desolate militarized borderland is constructed without an eye to human consequences or the human habitation of the land.

The architecture of the border marks an uninhabited zone and in-between space.  It is filled with ghosts by their eerily stark appearance, and a negative landscape by the sheer force of their surplus materiality, an eerily historical accumulation born out of desperation and frustration.  Despite the demands for increased border-barrier building  on the grounds of national security, adding additional sections of “fence” in the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, mandated in the 2006 Secure Fence Act, signed to “protect the American people,” fence of chain-link pedestrian fencing and vehicle barriers seem a monument against border-crossing,supplemented by video surveillance, aerial drones, and satellite surveillance, incorporating,  sealing off the southern edge of the country in a deeply misguided attempt to control human passage and lives.






While repeatedly re-introduced since the Bush presidency by Republicans, the plans for augmented building along the border oddly disregard the continued attempts of migrants to flee poverty, and only seek to criminalize the tens of thousands Central Americans who attempt riding the roofs of cargo trains annually to traverse Mexican lands from its southern border by the shortest paths possible.


trains to USJesuit Migrant Service 



The imposing presence of the rebuilt barrier of the boundary provide a record of the increasing danger of traversing the border as undocumented migrants, evident in the accumulation of lost objects and material records of bicycles, personal possessions, clothing, and talisman, and the improvised scarecrows of uncertain monitory value, and of actual human remains littered around them.  This counter-accumulation of personal remains provide traces of the routes of attempted migration.  The human costs of migration continue to escalate annually given the absence of a clear policy of border security, and the growth of a range of dangers including kidnapping, sexual violence, heat exhaustion, dehydration, or drowning, that make any tabulation of the human costs of smuggling, drug traffic, or human trafficking nearly impossible to be comprehensive.  And so, even as we turn the other eye to the increased human risks of immigration, investment expands in a policy of border fortification and militarization, ignoring the culture of violence that has emerged as if openly sanctioned in the heterotopia of border zones.


Border Scarecrows--Misrach.pngRichard Misrach, improvised human effigies along California-Mexico Borders, from Border Cantos


Despite the elusiveness of the possibility to ever monitor cross-border traffic in a comprehensive fashion, or to surveil those who attempt dangerous border-crossing, the costly security apparatus and border walls have crated a material surplus that has so quickly accumulated that it seems to substitute for lack of an adequate border policy.  Indeed, at times the wall has become a site of the commemoration of the men, women, and children who have died or been killed trying to traverse the political boundary, in one act of resistance to the failure to frame an adequate immigration policy, using it as a surface to call for needed reforms and to commemorate the many who died while crossing, and reclaiming the 15-foot-high wall of corrugated steel as a surface for commemoration of the hundreds of disappeared who have died attempting transit to the United States.  The result is a transformation of the violence of the border barriers and surveillance apparatus from a negative space to a site of protest, but also a monument of remembrance, mourning, and public introspection possessing sacred qualities of its own.


paula cabrera:my shotPaula Cabrera/My Shot


But the conversion of the wall to a site of public mourning is only partially comes to terms with its massive prominence and permanence of this obstacle to those attempting to flee poverty.  The accumulated obstacles interposed along the border and between border cities constitute a deep humanitarian concern, as numbers of apprehended non-Mexican immigrants attempting cross-border transit in south Texas have reached new heights.

The constructions that define the landscape of the border is less striking for its coherence than the variety of dehumanizing barriers that seek to block or impede undocumented migrants by creating a terrifying no-man’s land along routes that migrants travel.  Scarring the landscape in indelible ways, they create  a negative in-between space on the edge of the nation that bodes sinister for how we treasure our sense of civil society, but reflects the power of the sovereign state, rather than its “responsibility” to secure “our” boundaries.  The massive surplus of the newly instituted boundary barrier that dates only from 1990s, despite being surveilled by observation towers and monitored by border patrols of 1500 National Guardsmen, motion sensors and cameras, and sections of a long-running fence constructed costing over $1 million dollars a mile, the effort to “secure our borders” offers evidence of the lack of humanity about how we draw border lines.  If an impressive investment, it remains a limited deterrent.  President Obama reaffirmed the federal government’s “responsibility . . . to secure our borders” in 2010, but the barricading of almost a third of the 2,000-mile international border fencing reveals a surplus of material objects, concrete-filled rebar and stopping posts that only deflect attention from the plight of migrants by a daunting show of force and of our inhumanity.


5.  In the negative space of the border-barrier, migrants are not only expose themselves to artillery, but enter a militarized space clearly separated from and cordoned off of civilian space by their very surplus.  The multibillion dollar project affirms an illusion of continuity and a territorial divide more than constitute a reality, although they are imagined as a territorial divide.  Materializing the border long patrolled.  In those sections of eighteen-foot high fencing mandated by the Secure Fence Act of 2006 of George W. Bush’s presidency to decrease “security threats” near urban areas and historical border-crossings in the Rio Grande Valley, the 130 mile long stretch of fences create a zone distinguished by being absent from civil space.  Although some advocate benefits in extending these imposing sections at considerable human and financial cost across the entire territorial boundary line, the odd place created by existing “segmented fencing” of twenty-one separate stretches situated in the Rio Grande to thwart the itineraries of otherwise undocumented migrants create a non-space across a border-zone only recently documented or explored for the space of death that it creates for the undocumented.

The “fence” are actually fences, but sectors of fence and quarantine, built since 1990 in order to discourage migrants in improvised fashion, whose largest areas of barriers are in fact proposed.  The fence is a “non-place” rather than an actual wall, attempting to obstruct the thousands of attempted desert crossings that occur every week and year–all too often charted from a technocratic perspective at a remove from human experience.





If the stretches of reinforced fences built from Tijuana to Nogales to El Paso to Loredo and to the Rio Grande and Brownsville improvise impassible regions in response to migrant routes.  They create eerily inhumane spaces on much of the border, and expand an alternative routes to evade the expansive expression of force along the borderline–often through more treacherous environments, and not necessarily above ground.





The paths of individual itineraries are implicitly juxataposed against the ugly architecture of the border fences in the sequence of atmospheric photographs which Richard Misrach created over multiple visits to the fences, which cannot help but evoke the journeys of undocumented migrants, exhibited paired with compositions Guillermo Galindo performed with instruments made from objects Misrach discovered near the fences.   In an attempt to capture the negative space created by massive investment of public funds along the borderlands, Misrach has recreated their expansive landscape recontextualize these improvised massive material border boundaries to provoke questions about how they intersect with the lives of actual migrants, focussing on the traces migrants left near to the fences in personal objects from which Galindo has created pieces that return our attention to these haphazard lost fragments of migrant’s attempts to traverse the border.  The recovery of these individual paths are not mapped as itineraries, but called to memory in deeply evocative ways that, as the wall of individual crosses, bear testimony of the many migrants who desperately dedicated themselves to circumventing their architectural confines.

Photography is not cartography, but the sections of fencing Misrach has studiously photographed in multiple voyages map the border barrier from the position of the undocumented migrants, reminding us of the vantage point of the individuals whose itineraries they are built to thwart by inviting us to re-inhabit the landscape of the boundary fence.  Misrach’s expansive photographs of the border structures, crafted as inimitable atmospheric open views, offer an aesthetic counterweight to the oppressive structures of the US-Mexican border; they also help to insert people in an abandoned landscape, and conjure the multiple individual itineraries of humans that the border barriers seek to end.  As such, they eloquently empty the barries’ oppressive authority.


Wall, East of Nogales, Arizona (2015)Richard Misrach, “Near Nogales,” from Border Cantos



Richard Misrach, Border Cantos


6.  Misrach’s evocative photographs invite us to encounter their built surplus to reexamine the huge human costs of its construction, forcing us to question the “value” they create by dwarfing them in the expansive landscape.  Far more effectively than by maps alone, they create important settings that help viewers to consider the negative spaces that they create for the very undocumented migrants by which they seem inescapably haunted.  The spaces Misrach photographed don’t map onto clear sections of steel fence, but seem to capture the ghosts that haunt the barrier, even as they lightly undermine the oppressive authority of the costly material constructions that see a vain show of force, linked with technologies of surveillance in the name of Homeland Security–but which encourage ingenious if dangerous evasions in tunnels linked to storm drains, extensive burrows, bicycles used to escape monitors, or foot voyages across desert lands.  Indeed, such means of underground transit or evasion are increasingly common, and would not be clearly addressed in Trump’s project of reinforcing the boundary with an unbreachable wall.


7.  The extremely provocative collaboration between Misrach and  Galindo seem to capture the ghosts that inhabit the zone of boundary barriers, by deconstructing its imposing architecture and considering the impact of its architecture on human lives.  Photographs and composed music based on fragments Misrach found along the barrier re-present the surrounding landscape by the physical traces left by undocumented migrants, in a set of hauntingly evocative compositions played on instruments of Galindo’s fabrication use objects from the border zone.  In an exhibit that paired the photographs with sound installations, we can imagine ways of visiting sections of the border barrier and remind ourselves of its costs and consider the landscape that they create.  The artwork seems particularly opportune as the building of border fences–both along the southern border of the United States, and the northern border facing Canada–have been discussed with apparent urgency as the project of the next U.S. President, and discussed without adequate consideration of their actual human cost.

The actually ineffective improvised fences recently built along the US-Mexico border alternate between improvised materials–concrete-filled vertical bars; former military materiel; Normandy fencing–to define a policed no-man’s land, as much as only a border barrier, the sunk concrete barriers seem like archeological ruins waiting to remain and delusions of grandeur of a late imperial period.  The ghostly photographs of Misrach has taken since 2009 remind us that the creation of the 1,969 mile boundary barrier is anything but a line across the boundary of the United States, dwarfing its expanse in an atmospheric landscape.  Only inhabited by ghosts, the sections of fence materialize a zone free of inhabitation, that never existed on its own–they constitute an eery non-place of its own whose attempted orchestration of no-man’s land Misrach so successfully evokes.

The state of the wall as a non-place acknowledges the lack of traffic or impassability of movement across space, a symbolic construction that seems built for an age of the fear of the absence of stable bounds and borderlines.  Built along the roads that were policed by border patrols since the 1920s, the construction of an impassable boundary is part of a broad so-called security apparatus that defines a peculiar negative space, not properly in either nation.  The material surplus of the project of augmenting the border boundary to thwart undocumented migrants from crossing has only begun to be mapped adequately for its human cost, but the eloquent recuperation of traces and fragments of the attempted migration have been recovered, appropriated, and preserved in Misrach’s ongoing and particularly inventive collaboration with composer Guillermo Galindo, whose visual and audio segments jointly evoke the necessarily absent experiences of migrants to help us contemplate the steep human costs of the boundary fence.  Part of the intensity of the collaboration is the gesamtkunstwerk it creates, by combining native patterns of music, invented instruments and by discovering “lost” sounds of the ghosts that inhabit the border land, as well as to create a comparable surplus of meaning in counterweight to the imposing material surplus of the wall–constructions often fashioned from army surplus.

The desolation of the area Misrach photographed is not an empty zone, but a transient place, defined less as a nation than by the in-between, and as such filled with traces of those who attempted or actually crossed it, under the watchful eyes of US marshals who patrol it.  For all its management, it is a fundamentally uncontrollable space of its own, paradoxically, given the immense expanse of land that it covers, and exists to impress the landscape with a marker of state authority rather than to define territoriality.  Although most all of the territory is theoretically public space, this anti-space is a weird reminder of a deep desire for security, and insularity, that creates a minimally effective barrier at huge public expense.  While Misrach is dedicated as a photographer to recording expanse, with special attention to light, the open-ness of most of the photographs belie their own eery if not creepy confinement, forcing us to ask what sort of spaces of borderlands we seek to create, and what this mapping of boundaries tells us about our society as it shows us “the huge stage” they create for surveying borderlands in a crazy impossible project of the surveillance of the US-Mexico frontier.


Misrach, Border SignsRichard Misrach/Wall, Jacumba, California (2009)


Several of Misrach’s images of the wall communicate spacious atmospheric even as they track the confining structure that imposes itself on human life.  As Misrach follows the wall across depopulated landscapes in the California and Arizona plains, his images offer apt and fitting counterpoints to the brute presence of the border barrier–as much as they almost aestheticize its brute structure.  The above photographs situate the fence in a desolate atmosphere of barrenness east of Nogales, whose rusted vertical pipes create an in-between space, undulating against the surrounding hills, transcending its imposing construction, but inviting us to assemble the landscape that results.  As something of a scar that runs beside the regularly smoothed over sands on which border patrols search for signs of border-crossing migrants, the space that it defines at the border is an odd pristine man-made space that serves, like material flypaper, to capture the footprints of those who venture to try to cross, creating effective surveillance security cameras made of sand.


Wall, East of Nogales, Arizona (2015).png


8.  Despite increased border patrols across the Sonoran desert, and attempts of Humane Borders to distribute maps of the water stations that it offers migrants who attempt the crossing from the Mexican side of the border, the image that Misrach’s photographs of the fence omits is a tacit subject of Misrach’s wonderfully atmospheric view of the immediate environment that the map creates.  (They are the unseen who the photographs document by their absence, and are evoked in the musical objects and pieces Galindo made from the surviving trace-like fragments abandoned on the borderlands.

The music made from these found objects might be listened to while looking at the tragedy of migrant deaths mapped in a chart of the over 2,300 corpses of migrants who failed to arrive in the United States from 1999 to 2011–a rate of about five deaths every four days.


hb_all_deaths_20120428_web_small.pngHumane Borders



Guardian UK


Set in actual territorial context, the terrifying map of failed border crossings offers a necessarily partial record of migrant deaths from the US Border Control, but maps a cost impossible to comprehend or fathom, and emphasizes the tragedy of migrants’ plights as they crossed wildlife refuges, deserts, and even bombing ranges, seeking to arrive to nearby cities as Phoenix or Tucson, often due to dehydration or lack of food.  The virtual necropolis outside in Southern Arizona that had expanded by 2006 suggests the deaths due to desperate immigration of undocumented migrants and the disparity between decisions to devoting funds to building fences and the loss of human life.


Migrant DeaathsHumane Borders


Misrach focusses his camera lens on the spaces that the border fences create, but suggest the depths of their human tragedy and the steep human tally of their military-style enforcement.  At times, this is chilling as a tacitly acknowledged separation of space, as the concrete filled poles stretching from the beach in Tijuana, where Mexican beach-goers crowd the sandy shoreline up to the frontier, the boundary declares a lack of movement.


TIJUANA beach, MisrachRichard Misrach/Max Fraenkel Gallery


If the massive photographs of the boundary wall are only inhabited by the ghosts of migrants, in one of Misrach’s few photographs to show individuals, the Mexican beach-goers across the border are viewed from the other side of the territorial boundary, obscured and set apart from the extension of the natural beach that it stubbornly bisects.


9.  The personal, and indeed the person, is erased in all maps.  One of Misrach’s only image of a human face, Veronica, Friendship Circle, San Diego 2011, if one that is obscured:  Veronica appears obscured through interposing grille of twin rebar fences on the borderline through which migrants across the US border south of San Diego.  This section of wall that runs through Friendship Park offers the opportunity for family members to address those on the other side, for limited periods on weekends.  In Misrach’s photograph, Veronica’s body is more clear than her face across a metal grating but reminds interlocutors of the distance irrevocably interposed, as if it were unbridgeable or subject to negotiation, even if one can make out her bathing suit.  The brute militaristic presence of  encrusted grating magnifies the distance between any verbal exchange through Veronica’s almost entirely obscured features:  Misrach’s focus on the interposition of the grating suggests the fences that run through lives, multiplying the irony of the place-name.


Veronica, Friendship Circle, San Diego, 2013Richard Misrach, Veronica, Friendship Wall, San Diego (2013)



The image of one side of an interaction at Friendship Park, just south of San Diego, condenses the brutal insularity of the wall as pushing back migrants and its aggressive interposition into lives, focussing on the immediacy of one detail in particularly moving manner of the interpersonal remove that the wall creates in a Park where there was originally no fence, until the 1990s.



DSC_0041-972x646.jpgFriendship Park, Jack Jenkins/NPR


DSC_0037-638x959.jpg“Isidro,” Friendship Park, Jack Jenkins/NPR


These in-between places are true heterotopia, not exactly places but spaces that are intentionally set off from the world.  In an eloquent photograph of another section of fence, a monumental vertical bars create a wall cuts into the surf, declaring a spatial division in a particularly excessive manner, imposition itself on the shore’s landscape, as the open pages of an unread novel–Dr. Zhivago–with an abandoned shoe and a lighter suggest traces of a completed or incompleted human voyage across the barrier.


Dr Zhivago, Misrach TijuanaRichard Misrach, Wall, Boot and El Dr. Zhivago, Playas de Tijuana, California (2013)



10.  The surplus nature of the fencing off of an extensive boundary by vertical poles is more peculiar than its existence as a barrier:  the creation of the border barrier was begun in an engineering feat of a 14-mile long barrier ten feet in height of welded steel, built near San Diego in 1990, is a project of massive proportions and billions of dollars–perhaps the greatest project of public sculpture ever commissioned in the United States–begun in the very years the Berlin Wall fell.   Built from surviving landing pads made for military helicopters operating in Vietnam, as if from an excess of surviving materiel, engineers welded 24″ by 20″ panels to steel pipes buried eight feet beneath ground, joining the 123 feet long border barrier running through Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, modeled after car barricades intended to stop vehicles built at Normandy Beach in World War II.   The odd recycling of these sets of structures from massive military mobilizations in public memory seem designed to evoke a current “war on illegal immigration” if the extent of current border boundaries is almost impossible to actually defend.


54cfcd65a3c7f_-_border_tech_02_0810-lgPopular Mechanics


This expenditure of resources on an overly extensive no-man’s land of the borderland, defined by ongoing rows of fence, has created its own zone, often defined by vertical bollard fence, embedded in a five foot deep foundation of concrete, intended as an imposing obstacle than the more economical sections of fence of steel/wire mesh.


54cfcd667e7a3_-_border_tech_04_0810-lg-50216321Popular Mechanics


“Border Cantos,” an extremely moving collaboration between Richard Misrach and Guillermo Galindo, opened in the San Jose Museum of Art from February 26 to July 31, 2016, and has been covered in the California Sunday Magazine and National Public Radio‘s All Things considered.  Galindo’s eloquent musical instruments and performances created from objects found on the border were too moving to be addressed in this post.  They can be explored at his website, as well as at the exhibit website.

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March 1, 2016 · 1:06 pm

Being Offshore in an Increasingly Globalized Economy

The notion of the “offshore” suggests a realm out of reach of the law of the land, existing just off the coast of the regions supervised by regulators and taxmen, but has wildly expanded with the perpetuation of the legal fictions of the offshore.  Rather than exist only as a  region beyond the shoreline or coast, and by definition extraterritorial–


US SHoreline Clipped.png


–and lying outside legal view.  The entity of the offshore suggest the grey area of the law of the sea, outside sovereign authority or legal bounds, but as something like an apotheosis of the freedom of seas and an ill of globalization. The remove of the “offshore”suggests a growth of what might be called “ocean-like spaces,” open for untamable transactions–or offering tax relief by different measures–that are particularly corrosive to the governments on land, sovereign states from whom needed revenues regularly vanish, echoing the image of the offshore as a afflicted by an absence of familiar legal categories and of tax obligations.  If the growth of oceanic space as a site absent from state authority, juridically neutral, and beyond sovereign reach, outside the apparatus of government, the growth of the “offshore” in recent years as a construct or luxury for the super-rich offered a site for the unmonitored financial transactions, not only a place of trade or ocean routes, but a site for storing monies that could accumulate unseen–even if, as in the case of Switzerland, the “offshore” might exist on land.  But the offshore gained new prominence and currency in the frictionless economy of globalization, tolerated as allowing monies to be stored and seqeustered tax free, in a region that no one country can possess, but exits for all as a lying outside national control. If many sites of the “offshore” were independent crown dependencies of the colonial age, the continued effervescence of offshore sites increasingly exist for the globalized economy.

The “offshore” most familiarly beckons as an idyllic as a place of respite and luxury, free from the imposition of taxes or the need to surrender money to a government.  Removed from the sort of sovereign laws that demand the reporting income, the offshore has become a refuge for the super-rich, and for international corporations who want to disguise profits overseas.  But its expansion is increasingly a major security threat for global finances, if not a symptom of the illnesses of economic imbalance that increasingly afflict the globalized world.  If Zygmut Bauman aptly described the erosion of individual security and collective or individual commitments as a state of liquid modernity, and the offshore partakes of a similar liquidity:  money departs from land governments to seek refuge in accounts not open to public view:  the offshore is a microcosm of the erosion of state authority, as funds flow offshore as the place of least resistance, secreted outside the public eye.  By locating funds “offshore,” removed from terrestrial land and tax audits, the subtraction of funds from the common good seems sanctioned, and has lead to a huge reduction on spending on infrastructure and social services in developing countries, where they are most needed.

The remove the “offshore” promises from sovereign laws, as if lying international waters just out of reach of economic boundary zones, evokes open spaces of leisure, dominated by yachts or pleasure cruises, as if exits from the pressures of the day-to-day work–yet its expansion is tied to the expansion of globalized markets and friction-free revenues able to traverse borders, and to enable ever-growing income inequalities in a globalized world.  As countries such as the British Virgin Islands openly rebuff calls from England’s Prime Minister to reveal the ownership of offshore firms located in overseas territories and crown dependencies, begging time to “assess its impact on the BVI economy” while neglecting its impact on global finance and income inequality.  How, one might ask, might the new offshore make the most sense to map?

The increasingly unavoidable place that the “offshore” has come to occupy in global networks has made problems of achieving transparency given the levels of legal anonymity offered in the “offshore.”  Such somewhat hidden destinations, as the nation of Nive in the South Pacific, an outcrop atoll with a population below 2,000, was the site where Mossack Fonseca & Co. signed a twenty year “lease” in the mid-1990’s to incorporate offshore entities where they could be officially registered either in Cyrillic or Chinese, for example, bankrolling 80% of the government’s annual budget in exchange–until sufficient numbers of banks blocked money transfers to Nive, leading the government to rescind the offer of exclusivity, forcing it to relocate to Samoa, as it had relocated offices of incorporation from Panama to Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands, in a version of island-hopping that epitomizes the frictionless boundaries of the Offshore.  The granting of such anonymous accounts goes hand-in-hand by the new identities the corporations are allowed to gain as they travel into smaller “offshore” dependencies, less reliant on tax reserves, which suggest new landscapes for investment and promise financial anonymity–with far less concern for the public good, which itself drops off the map.


160403-background-05British Virgin Islands


The concealed coffers of the offshore have long existed, although it hasn’t come into prominence.  But the sudden possibility of massive data downloads leaked by whistle-blowers with access to accounts at HBSC or Mossack-Fonseca & Co. can help reveal hidden networks of money slipping silently across national borders that has fallen off the radar of government tax agencies and slid off the map into anonymous offshore accounts.  The success of such evasion of sites have taxation have encouraged billionaire Peter Theil, among other projects he has deemed worthy of funding, to dedicate millions of dollars to the creation of offshore floating islands, perhaps off of California’s Silicon Valley, that might exist as tax-free refuges that are the free-market apotheosis of fellow entrepreneurs:  the founder of PayPal hoped to create a free-floating offshore “libertarian island” by donating to the “Seasteading Institute” in 2008 to allow offshore tax avoidance and perhaps overeas working conditions close to home, in a floating island that would exist lose to land, but resist the confines of the sovereign map.  As if the logical conclusion of a transference to most mapping apps online, the expansion beyond sovereign frontiers for Theil and partner Patri Friedman–Uncle Milton’s son–is to imagine a waterborne that exists off of the map as we know it, an “autonomous island” removed from tax authorities, and intrusive government intervention:  crowd-funded “sea-floating cities” are the “next frontier” and perhaps the paradigm of a new offshore life–as much as a Utopian project.

The realization of movable offshore, if fanciful, was not uncoincidentally created by the online world, and an incarnation of the frictionless money transfers PayPal facilitates.  But it suggests a geographical imaginary where one is at last free of messy national frontiers and state authority.  The design of this new, permanent offshore, negotiated with a “host country” off of which the floating island would dock, suggests a mobility of work, life, and research without being hampered by national state authorities or bounds.


Seasteading-From-DeltaSync-Blimp-min.pngSeasteading Institute

Floating Cirty Project

Allured by its inviting imagined landscape, the allure of the offshore is the license of border-free indulgence on booze boats for obtaining luxuries on the cheap, and the obfuscation of tax rules:   but the emergence and growth of the “offshore” as a place for the tacit acceptance of anonymity possesses a seriously toxic topography insuring income inequality, linking criminals and corporations, keeping vast sums of money effectively off the books whose glitzy imagined geography that conceals multiple transactions.


160403-background-01.jpgPleasure Boats Anchored off of Panama City/Shutterstock


Already in 1937, then-US Secretary of the Treasury Robert Morgethau took special care to warn then-President Franklin D Roosevelt how in Bahamas, Panama and Newfoundland, “stock-holders have resorted to all manners of devices to prevent the acquisition of information regarding their companies . . .  organized with foreign lawyers with dummy incorporators and dummy directors, so that the names of the real parties in interest do not appear.”  Since then, the practices enabling the geography of Offshore offices under the guise of fictive corporations and accounts whose names are able to change suddenly have dramatically grown, providing ways for multiple criminals and drug dealer to hide earnings as multinationals conceal foreign profits in anonymous unreported accounts.

The disturbing geography of black holes into which taxable earnings go “offshore” might be partly suggested by the charts of US corporations located offshore that do report billions of foreign taxable income–



US Corps in Cayman Islands, taxable income

Taxable Income for US Corps in BVIForeign Taxable Income of US Multinationals; Tax Foundation


–and the increasing amount of tax revenues that is tied to offshore companies.


1.  The recent unveiling of the secret world of offshore tax havens has revealed a world that was in a sense hiding in plain sight:  the network of companies’ bank accounts, “shell” companies and trusts has exposed a hidden labyrinthine world where half of the world’s wealth seems likely to reside.  If the offshore exists for legitimate ends, we are told, the growth of secretive accounts and fictive companies have remarkably multiplied in offshore areas with such have allowed the disappearance of increasing amounts of money to suddenly come to light.  And although much of the offshore is distributed in post-colonial lands and overseas territories and dependencies–vestiges of the British Empire, not subject to but British constitutional law, and outside its tax codes–that served, as a myriad of private Switzerlands, to create opportunities for secretive bank accounts never reported or accessible to sovereign tax agencies.  It is a fiction of the overlooked, and as an overlooked set of transactions, is both important and extremely difficult to map–even if one can mapped as Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies, that lie off the radar of the taxman, whose extraterritoriality removes them from sovereign scrutiny.



British Overseas Territories (Wikimedia)/TUBS


The level of secrecy and anonymity such sites guarantee is prized in the globalized economy.  Globalization and multinationals, often with their main sites in larger countries as the United states, have contributed greatly to the recently explosive growth of the “offshore” as a category and a destination of funds, in ways that are tolerated both actually and tacitly, by the United States.  Indeed, the United States is not only one of the largest locations of “offshore” sites–which the above map largely obscures–one building in the Cayman Islands not only houses 12,000 companies based in the United States, but the United States has become a major “offshore” practices of concealment from sovereign taxes.  If many offshore sites are located in Delaware, Wyoming, Florida, South Dakota or Nevada, which don’t require the ownership of corporations to be released, anonymous “shell’ companies can be formed with amazing ease without legal identification, without identifying their owner or financial beneficiary.  (A single, nondescript building in Wilmington, DE is home to 285,000 businesses–and the state as a whole holds far more corporations and corporate entities (945,326) and it has citizens (897,934), bringing in revenues in taxes of $860 million from absentee corporate residents, but costing other states some $9.5 billion, and mad the United States the number one center of the foundation of anonymous corporations in the world–two million–temporarily placing the state ahead of Switzerland and Luxembourg in the Tax Justice Network’s Financial Secrecy Index, before it recently slipped to fifth place behind Switzerland, British Virgin Islands, and the Cayman Islands.

Yet more practices for secretly concealing wealth exist or were framed within the United States than elsewhere, and indeed the legal fictions in which law firms in the United States and Canada specialized played a large role in its proliferation, and in the tolerance of such ethical blinders.  And so, even as we map the ‘growth’ of the offshore sites from jurisdictions such as Panama to Overseas Territories as the British Virgin Islands to atolls, islands, or archipelagoes that beckon investors with promises of anonymity and tax immunity, the sanctioning of such policies, and indeed their legal architecture, begins in the United States–a major inland site of anonymous companies.


USA-Anonymous CompaniesAnonymous Companies in United States–explore interactive version


Secrecy is particularly created inland.  The United States has come to be a prime site of the “onshore offshore,” although it is spread across the inhabited world.  The “offshore” might be more appropriately metaphorically cast and envisioned as subterranean if not super-secretive.  Yet “offshore” has emerged as a site for the accumulation of wealth and sequestering it in other sites–as on a desert island, in that favorite metaphor of buried treasure–whose relative liquidity has greatly grown or astronomically multiplied with increasing ease of cross-border financial traffic.  The calculation in 201 that at least $21 to $32 trillion lies in “offshore” jurisdictions that allow financial secrecy or, more benignly, “tax neutrality,” suggests a new model for the unrecorded accumulation of wealth.  And while many shell corporations are located on atolls, in the Caribbean, or in South East Asia, to escape regulation, the practices for constructing financial secrecy were devised far inland–most frequently by far, in the United States, if formerly in England.


top twenty offshore sites


2.  Is it only in a time of increased cutbacks in public services, and fiscal constraints, that the regular leeching of local tax revenues that the expansions of the offshore enables that the United States has effectively encouraged has begun to be brought to light?  is it a level of disgust at the inequality that they undersrote?  or has the number of offshore entities reached a critical mass of the leeching of tax revenues of an estimated $8-32 trillion or upwards of private wealth to some sixty offshore centers, often lured by offshore-based middlemen to enter shady legal fictions, just grown too high?  are most now seduced by a hidden architecture of offshore bank accounts and “shell corporations” that finally seems to threaten the very sovereign states that long turned the other eye?  More likely, it is that the next revolution will be digitized, and that whistle-blowers now are able to dump the data of these hidden financial networks from a single thumb-drive onto the internet.

The secretive nature of isolated offshore sites offering tax immunity or limited tax liabilities belie the notion of the continuity of the world.  It suggests a growing world of big finance, hidden from public view, that allows the multiplication of corporations and places to hide wealth or corporate profits.  The creation of such black holes of global finance has grown dramatically, as bearer shares expanded in companies located in “offshore” sites,  astronomically after 1990, and after 2000 and in the first ten years of the twenty-first century reached unprecedented heights.


ICIJ Bearer Shares Location.png

Bearer Shares in Offshore Companies held by Mossack Fonseca/ICJI

If the function of the “offshore” tax havens was to concentrate wealth within the hands of the rich, or within multinational corporations, the growth of the offshore has created a further disparity of wealth.  The growth of offshore companies that offered tax shelters to long existed.  But from the mid-1980s, when the British Virgin Islands sanctioned the founding of corporations without public disclosure, or “shell companies”, that permitted a new level of money laundering and concealment of profits from taxation.   The subsequent growth of offshore areas has been encouraged by the ability to transfer sites of location to different with atolls, islands, and offshore areas to avoid global scrutiny–or national scrutiny of tax authorities.  But now, for the first time, there is the possibility, with increased dataleaks, to actually map the hidden world of the offshore, If a huge number of such assets once disappeared into those legendary “Swiss Bank Accounts” as revealed

The expansion of practices of secretive means of tax avoidance of individual and corporate wealth has increasingly enabled a growing gap between super-rich and poor, facilitating the illicit annual outflow of over a trillion of dollars from developing countries, according to Global Financial Integrity.  To an extent, that geography was questioned not only by the financial crisis of 2008, but a growing sense since that all should pay their fare share of taxes, leading the papers of Mossack Fonseca to be anonymously leaked to the Süddeutsche Zeitung in late March of 2016.  Yet the growth of a geography of sequestering funds free from taxes has allowed the offshore to grow rapidly–and the number of offshore corporations to blossom, allowing an escalating transfer of wealth through offshore regions where they are not taxed.  The recent exposure of these findings–and more are promised in the manifesto of John Doe, who leaked the Mossack Fonseca files,  “The Revolution Will Be Digitized,” who seeks to demonstrate how tax havens flourished with the knowing oversight of law firms, in ways that warped the global geography of big finance in the globalized world to the benefit of the super-rich.

Already, we had a glimpse of the huge proportions of local fortunes that were funnled from each continent into the leaked client accounts of HBSC, including trillions moving from developing countries in a shameful manner for tax evasion or money laundering:  a huge share of the GDP of impoverished lands, subtracted from projects of infrastructure or public helath, might be recouped from such secrecy jurisdictions created by a single bank which effectively subtracted a huge portion of sub-saharan countries tax franchise:




The seqeustering of assets in HBSC bank accounts, here sized as a percentage of GDP, map the perpetuation of global inequalities that confirm an almost paranoid view of obstacles faced within developing countries, as private funds are substracted from the tax franchise.


3.  Because such “offshore” sites attract capital flows with promises of secrecy, they cannot be tracked by their very definition–such secretive repositories of money attract tax-free dollars are valued for the silence that they promise.  But their increased prominence may be all the more in need of tracking for their elusiveness in an increasingly globalized economy.  The offshore has little geographical continuity, since it is a concept that has become increasingly mobile and mutable in a globalized economy, where the conceit of the residence of a company seeks to migrate out of the tax structures, rather than to a destination.  Indeed,the term “offshore” reflects remove from sovereign financial oversight of a land-based territory–hence their tax-exempt or -reduced status.  As the conceptual and metaphorical remove of the “offshore” spaces suggest their created nature as regions of tax-exemptions, offshore sites exist as prominent constructs only in an age of globalization.  If all maps are surrogates for space, the mapping of the offshore–places that emerge on the boundaries or borderlands of states, or at the small states that have refused to enter shared tax-code conventions with other states, as Switzerland, Liechtenstein, San Marino or Luxembourg, lie on the margins of cross-border flows of global capital, by promising tax immunity.

Herman Melville described the most “true places” as those rarely down on any map, and waiting to be discovered:  the present-day offshore lies in some of the areas that Melville visited, but are the reverse, and purely fictive sites, whose flows are rarely openly mapped.  Was the experience of the “offshore” indeed once far more concretely expressed on many early maps, however, as its unknown nature was wrestled with as a real place.  The modern “offshore” is hardly composed of “true” places, but exists in a space of post-modern big finance, far outside the concrete embodiment of mapped space in ways with which we must wrestle.  For the offshore is in ways the least real, as it is also the most imagined conceit, existing entirely in so far as it is a recognized extra-territorial entity.  The expansion of the offshore suggests the interest of the places remove from financial oversight:  it’s unethical not to map places that exist hiding capital; the promise of tax immunity attracts funds to the offshore in ways that demand better mapping for the common good.

Yet the tax shelters of the offshore are almost a utopia within the globalized world.  The tax-free places existing to attract investment and the sequestering of profits in secret bank accounts have come, sadly, to be taken as something of a model:  in the Sunflower state of Kansas, as land-locked as it gets, the conservative movement’s “blueprint for Utopia” promising massive tax breaks for the wealthy and tax amnesties for 100,000 businesses, as a sort of panacea for an absence of economic investment, has siezed on the utopian nature of the tax-shelter:  paired with the tightening of welfare requirements to reduce public expenditures, and cost-cutting by the privatization of the delivery of Medicaid, and multimillion dollar cuts to the state’s education budget, the erasure of infrastructure seems an anti-Utopian movement designed to wreak havoc among the state’s inhabitants and undermine trust in the public good.  It is a microcosm of the “new offshore” places sprouting up, in ever-increasing desperate bids to convert actual spaces to the heterotopia of duty-free zones in airports.  The American Conservative movement has championed a Blueprint for Utopia to eviscerate the local availability of public benefits and create a living hell for local residents by cutting corporate taxes through unprecedented levels of tax amnesty remote from anything like good government, but imitating the proliferation of the offshore inland–bringing the “offshore” inland in dangerous ways.

For the virtual spaces of capital structure the offshore–rather than trends of habitation, physical geography, or human settlement.  But these marginal spaces of limited actual sovereignty have come to constitute particularly fertile spaces of the in-between; the metageographical concept of extraterritoriality is distinct from most mapped space, but holds a crucial place in the global economy.  If maps are created to reflect the maintenance of the status quo, the extraterritoriality of offshore regions exist with increasing prominence because of the security and secrecy that they offer financial transactions.  The sites of the offshore as such are created by capital, and map a shifting relation of the individuals to global space rich with greater implications than the advantages the ‘offshore’ tax shelters offer the superrich.  These are in a sense borderlands that attract currency for investment, lying outside of the rules of governance that are suspended within their bounds, at a sense lying at odds with sovereign states with potentially dire consequences for many of the world’s inhabitants.

Although maps have been long drawn of the spaces of state sovereignty, numerous conceptual questions are raised by the mapping of the offshore–and of the effects of its relatively recent expansion of corporate globalization over the past ten to fifteen years.  The expanse of the offshore in the interstices of globalism, and with the growth of multinationals, has come to assume notional autonomy and importance in the global economy as unprecedented as it was largely unforeseen.  While the offshore exists as a set of places that are “hidden” from tax authorities, these spaces combine extraterritorial entities that fall outside of actual legal jurisdiction–such as Guernsey or the Isle of Man– that come out of a traditions of feudal law, with the post-colonial spaces which continue to lack independent sovereign authority, whose elites have retained a liminal relation to departed colonizers, such as the British Virgin Islands, Marshall Islands, or Hong Kong, opening up new spaces of extraterritoriality, not maritime but rather partaking neither of land or sea and indeed without recognizable boundaries.  The post-colonial places of the offshore have a precedent in feudal law, but a cultural geography that is increasingly separate from offshore/onshore divide, existing as extraterritorial fictions that enable the global circulation of big capital to escape taxation.  They include enclaves as Switzerland or Luxembourg, but are rarely found on a map or shown in a map projection.

The increased attention to the offshore as a basis for the globalized economy of recent years may imply a shifting order of the global economy–where refuges from financial oversight are elided with spaces removed from land-based governance, to which most governments effectively agree to turn the other eye.   They become the “other spaces” of globalization, less defined by their own inhabitants but their attraction of foreign capital.  Historically originating in sites understood as dependencies that were the inheritance of a colonial world, the robust economy of the offshore archipelagos of tax-immunity in places from the Bahamas, Cayman Islands, British Virgin Islands, Samoa, Malta or Antigua and the Barbados have become islands in the minds of tax lawyers, declaring their own tax immunity on paper, and gaining new prominence on a global map as a destination for corporate monies as much as the tax shelters of the wealthy they’ve long served–but are the most prominent islands of the mind of the twenty-first century.

Despite the misleadingly anodyne sound of the increasingly elastic construction of the “offshore,” the concept disguises its danger to the liberal state:  the designation of those spaces where the playing field isn’t level, and investments are surrounded by a wall of secrecy impermeable to the IRS or other sovereign tax agencies, gathers the tolerated self-declared spaces of tax-exemption which have less to do with actual shorelines of habitation than their remove from the walls of secrecy about financial transactions–and the pathways of routing financial services and capital on separate streams outside the seas of data to which governments enjoy oversight.  For rather than islands being known by their inhabitants, they are islands removed from sovereign authority:  and in an age of globalization, where almost all inhabited lands are mapped by GPS, the “offshore” exists as a refuge for financial flows.  The flag of the offshore is the status of being tax exempt.

The oddly imprecise entity of the offshore is a space created by a rewriting of global commerce.  For it is fostered and encouraged by the finances of multinational firms in a global economy, where corporate entities seek to evade taxation laws with their origin in countries defined by borders, boundaries, and shores.  The “offshore” evades spatial sovereignty, in other words, and creates shelters for big finance so that they are free from any national oversight.  The offshore exists as an unbounded concept and conceit, no longer bound to actual shorelines but an apparent vestige of the post-colonial world that effectively legitimizes a continued unevenness of global taxation rates.

The rapidity of the multiplication and global proliferation of “offshore” tax shelters in recent years that form part of the offshore world are outgrowths of the globalism of multi-nationals, they suggest new places for evading sovereign laws, as much as new spaces of cartographical colonization.  Their proliferation in the microclimates of the South Seas and Central America, as well as the dependencies and small states in Europe, are new spaces in the mind that seem designed to attract the attention of investors:  as invitations to consider new spaces of financial transactions, they recall the fantastic cartographical fictions that embellish the edges of medieval and early modern world maps, and are perpetuated in the spatial rhetoric of early modern and late medieval marine charts typified by the offshore spaces that are so enticingly mapped in isolari–brightly painted  unknown islands colored in red, gold, or green beckoned the eye and imagination of readers as if with the promise of untold riches, and exercised attention as removed form the landlocked, surrounded by rhumb lines.  Of course, rather than be the sites where actual or monstrous inhabitants dwell, the offshore is the preserve of promises to hide financial transactions, subtracted or siphoned from public expenditures, secreted away in anonymous shell companies or personal or commercial  bank accounts.  They promise not the fantastical inhabitants or riches of foreign lands, but the new fantastic of the unseen.




Modern offshore spaces may not in fact be spatially removed “islands.”   They are instead places technically removed from the global financial map–or at least the map of the spaces of sovereign financial oversight.  The islands (literally, tax refuges) of the “offshore” are only of course figuratively removed from a shoreline, financial destinations for vast sums of money to be secreted in the sea of big finance, serving as shelters for the super-rich to secrete cash reserves in untaxed form and for companies to tether profits as yachts without any impunity as their income grows.  The hidden channels and legal fictions by which the legal construction of the offshore manages to work above-board isn’t so evident to many, but the proliferation of places offering tax immunity seems the ugly underside of a world which lacks shelter for actual refugees, has created a relatively recent a proliferation of refuges for global finance–sums subtracted from tax revenues once secreted in the continued conceit of the “offshore.”

The offshore of the present day is removed from the offshore imagined in earlier periods, but oddly replicate the fictive relation to the offshore as a site of invention and imagination, a site of otherness no longer corresponding to the observations of the inland. But they may, indeed, be filled with as many monsters–and even based on a less tactile sense of the dangers that exist as one ventures metaphoriclaly offshore into the financial unknown.  Whereas isolate or the marine charts of sailors depicted far off sites, removed from mainland sovereignty, and ports were often of quite difficult arrival, the point of the “offshore” is the ease by which money arrives to accounts without oversight:  if the offshore is removed from the sovereign, it has been domesticated into the global economy, stripped of the dangers of the seas, it bodes far more dangerously for the world.


Olaus' Offshore?.pngDetail of Sea Monsters depicted in North Sea, in Olaus Magnus, Carta Marina (Venice, 1539)


The sites of the shadow economy of the financial offshore are analogous to a travel poster of destinations where money might be stored and subtracted from landlocked regions–even if you don’t ever go there–is recorded in the static map of the foreign secretion of where global capital congregates in offshore demands a far more dynamic interactive chart like that of the anonymous companies.  Since the offshore sites serve as sites for businesses and individuals to self-servingly subtract themselves from the tax franchise, they have spawned in the new spaces for anonymous entities, which multiply as if in the financial Petri dishes of globalization on the edges of state borders and of sovereign authority.  For in such dependencies that invite anonymous companies, the “laws” of havens essentially invite individuals to place money there, or corporations to base businesses there, to escape tax regulations that other jurisdictions have adopted.  The site of the offshore offer sites for basing companies on paper, or routing financial flows, so they are not noticed by other states, whether it is a territory with its own legal system or a dependent territory overseas.  But it is misleading to see the proliferation of offshore sites in spatially removed lands–


%22offshore%22 tax havens


–as proliferating in accommodating climactic conditions, as in petrie dishes, so much as the symptoms of globalized finance.




4.  The growing currency the offshore in global financial markets gained wide traction as a legal fiction corresponds to the growth of tacit consensus  allowing the flight from local tax codes, and the secretive reigns.  If the notions of utopia, or island refuges, might have existed on the horizon of earlier spatial imaginaries, scattershot tax havens across the South Seas, Mediterranean, or Caribbean suggest a congestion of financial capital that has run offshore from the markets they were generated, increasingly warping the destination of money in the world’s economy and ensuring that the playing field will stay as uneven as possible.  Rather than a set region, the sites of the offshore are declared by fiat, through legal conventions and tax laws where local tax revenues are in part foregone–and others invited to store money there without impunity and guarantees of full transparency.  This encourages the multiplication of shadow companies, existing as storefronts, but with few employees, and anonymous entities that are more profuse than the actual dwellers who live in the relatively small sites of the offshore, which allowed the offshore to expand as sites of convenience for the wealthy multinationals that are based inland.

One might best place the growth of the offshore in the arrogance of the widely growing anti-tax climate stretches from America to Russia to Africa.  Although we tend to see it locally–as made evident in maps such as the Tax Foundation’s Tax Climate Index--a similar world-view has distanced taxation from obligation, and worked to recast, much as has the Tax foundation, variations in tax liability as something as accidental as climate or geography, rather than an intentional planned fraud.


2014 State Business Tax Climate Index.png

The profusion of tax havens function along something of a similar geographic lie.  If since distanced by its mapmakers, the map reveals a deep desire for tax avoidance increasingly conflated with the ability to declare areas as exempt from tax liability.  The expansion of the “offshore” as a circumlocution for places promising tax-free investment reflects its transformation from places to tax refuges for the super-rich:  noted by red dots clustered in three areas of the globe where they have congregated in the header to this post, clusters of islands–or regions–lying in the European Union, former colonial lands in Central America, or the South Seas has come ashore both literally–they exist not only on islands, but in Amsterdam, Switzerland, Delaware, Miami and Latvia–as they have come a public concern both for tax evasion and with the recent–and still not clearly understood or mapped–leak of the Panama Papers from the firm Mossack Fonseca, who have provided trust services since 1986–and whose shredded papers have been recently seized in the hope to map a clearer trail of their hidden financial services.

The proliferation of such “tax havens” were created to serve specific ends.  Indeed, in the crown dependencies and “overseas territories” of the United Kingdom such as the British Virgin Islands and Cayman islands, the number of incorporations of shell companies has spiked as the number of incorporation specialists who promise the creation of sequestering funds from taxes in shell companies in offshore jurisdictions has grown globally.  And in an age of globalized finance, where borders mean far less and transfers are easily accomplished within legal conventions, the funneling of monies outside tax responsibilities has grown to new proportions, as sites of offshore finance have grown wherever there appear to be islands.


incorporation specialists.png

Although the universe of the Offshore exists more as a hidden network of financial exchange than as sites for setting up shell companies and invisible corporations, the growth of its opaque economy of concealment has spread over the globe in recent years in ways that serve the borderless and frictionless traffic of monies as a direct consequence of globalization–allowing a growth of new shell corporations established in recent years through Mossack Fonseca to sequester monies in the Caribbean so as to avoid taxes.


offshore havens bvi


Such havens don’t properly lie on the map–based largely in small countries, often just off the coastline, they are valued for the peculiarity of their declaration of welcoming anonymous companies that effectively invested them with extraterritorial status.  Offshore sites are constructed as sites for individuals or corporations to sequester profits that can be legally “hidden” in shell companies or anonymous corporations to evade taxation.  The expansion of these offshore spaces have served to attract capital to what once seemed the edges of the world–although the ease of opening new spaces that circumvent tax policies have increasingly invited the expansion of the category of the “offshore” as a virtual nation in a globalized world, where the friction-free movement of cash encourages countries to declare themselves tax havens hospitable to opening shell companies.  Although many of the beneficiaries of the shell companies may reside elsewhere–and multiple shell companies might reside, in some cases, at the same actual address–the “offshore” maps something like a set of portals to a parallel world of global finance, offering tax reductions or tax havens and ready access to funds.  To go offshore is to be rendered secret, unseen, and to ensure one’s transactions are opaque.

The relatively recent proliferation of “offshore” sites is not only a dangerous means of siphoning off monies for infrastructure or the public good in many places, by effectively thwarting the taxation of trillions of dollars.  It also serves as legal conceit created to allow the perpetuation of income equalities in a globalized world.  The growth of the “offshore” seems a reflection of the global nature of big finance, using guarantees of secrecy and ready availability to store monies that are effectively off the map of the sovereign state–and the offshore is a negative space to secrete hidden investment out of sight from onshore authorities that have only started to be assembled in a collective map–precisely because the secretive nature of the “offshore” is their attraction as destinations to concentrate wealth.  Although the conventions of terrestrial mapping of the globe are incommensurate with the ties between clients, corporations, and shareholders that have expanded the opaque constellation of an offshore world, clustered to suggests their increasingly lopsided nature in an ever-globalized world.  Independently from the places in which shell companies or anonymous corporations are ostensibly located, the proliferation of transactions holding companies allow–anonymous transactions effectively hidden removed from a clear map of global finance in the utter opacity of the offshore networks that each allows–offering a portal to the shadow-world of big finance.

The dramatic expansion of the offshore as a site to which to move monies reflects the new frictionless, borderless economy of a globalized world, where monies can be made invisible to tax authorities with relative ease.  The legal fictions about the offshore create the presence of legality to subtracting money from the taxation, by essentially shifting its location from a sovereign state to the non-place of the offshore.  While legally registered at these localities by registered agents, even if the bulk of their personnel, products, and even executives are located on a mainland to be named, the fiction of the offshore consists of new networks of legal arrangements that result from the increased portability and mobility of financial capital, and the demand to conceal its flow:  not for no reason are blacklisted individuals, from weapons financiers to drug lords to terrorists particularly solicitous of the secret services the offshore offers, in the company of Silicon Valley tycoons and the super-rich, as well as multi-nationals that are ostensibly based in the US. While the tax-free status was tolerated for many in Switzerland or in post-colonial dependencies, the burgeoning use of offshore sites for tax evasion by multinationals or as centers for terrorist activities, nuclear trafficking, and drug lords reflects the expanded invisibility of the traffic of monies in a globalized economy.

Increasingly, the growth of the offshore in sites in the Caribbean–from Panama to the British Virgin Islands to Nevis–have grown in expanse from the demand from the American economy if not industries that are actually based in the United States.



Nevis–Nick Perry/AP


5.  While “offshore” locations were inherited as artifacts of the law of the sea, lying outside national jurisdiction in an extraterritorial expanse, the offshore has flourished in the ambiguity of post-colonial spaces long defined as lying outside sovereign tax codes.  Indeed, the proliferation of tax havens that were a convenience for the super-rich was embraced by multi-nationals as sites of concealing their earnings and wealth.  Pressing the symbolic anthropology of the offshore, might one better trace a conceptual genealogy of the current prominence the offshore has gained in our ever-more globalized world?

The dramatically increased mobility of money has lent new status to the secretive nature of shadow companies in sites from offshore islands in the Caribbean to the South Seas to semi-autonomous principalities form Liechtenstein to the Isle of Man–and the growth of quasi-legal entities, outside the purview of sovereign states, which exist as sites for funneling wealth or capital flows out of the sight of tax codes, into anonymous companies based in one jurisdiction, but owned in trust by someone in another jurisdiction, with trustees in yet a third.  As if in a game of three card monte with trillions of dollars, and involving legal agents for sequestering funds under the shells of exotic beaches, the legal fictions of the offshore are created by big finance, seeking havens from the taxman, less as spaces than conceits, with chains that tie them around the globe.  Such sites, suitably far removed from office-work, use their bucolic settings as veils under with the opaque routing of capital and transaction of monies to shell companies can legally occur.  They are, in a sense, and express, the utmost alienation of money from the workplace.

Ocean maps have long served to organize the viewer’s relation to “offshore” sites lying outside national waters, apart from but in relation to a mainland–the boundaries of the so-called law of the seas–the ancestor of the concept of an extraterritorial mare liberum first theorized by the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius.  The absence of a rule of national law in the mare liberum exempted it from national oversight–areas lying outside national control and beyond the continental shelf or mapped outside exclusive economic zones, and so economic sovereignty.  But the offshore economies of shadow companies suggest a negative universe of tax evasion, designed to occlude taxable income from sovereign states, and something like a shadow universe of the tax-free, which has only begun to emerge from the legal cloak of secrecy that has created the growth of a range of offshore sites–many situated at a considerable remove from the mainland, as offshore territories, as Cyprus, the Isle of Man or British Virgin Islands, but others flourish deep inland–like Switzerland or Delaware.

The current expansion of a number of “offshore sites” for storing monies in faceless shell companies reflects the growing desire to remove monies from oversight, and effectively make it disappear:  the  amount of “hidden” money that lies offshore in tax havens which contain accounts estimated from twenty-one to thirty trillion dollars, hidden from the central banks of 139 nations in a shadow financial system that is only beginning to be mapped with increased interest to understand the concealed recesses of the globalized economy.  In a world of big data, when transactions stored on hard drives are easily diffused, the offshore constitutes a final frontier of secrecy, and the ostensible sequestering of funds outside of public view, and have grown in ways that makes their tabulation even uncertain–exchanges on the books of the Panamanian firm of Mossack Fonseca in the Panama Papers provide a rare opportunity to glimpse the shadow world of the secret transactions that offshore shell corporations have facilitated and allowed to expand which Alice Brennan of Fusion  mapped in a data map linking between clients, shareholders, companies and incorporation agents based on the 2.6 terabytes of data from an allegedly “secure online connection”–a universe in parasitical relation to clients’  money situated in the US, mapped by ties marked in blue lines, designed to evade the Internal Revenue Service, even if the download did not list American names.  These cobalt lines–fault lines in the offshore economy–suggest a classical remapping of hidden pathways of exchange, and a network of the offshore.  They map the complex archeology of the offshore economy, whose expanse has increasingly grown as a strategy of evasion, a sort of negative space that intersects with areas of extraterritoriality.

Indeed, recent attempts of the government to reign in the offshore–and it’s “not the average family . . . that avoids paying taxes by offshore accounts” or by tax “inversions,” President Obama reminded the nation–reflect the explosion of this offshore universe, and the increasingly evident unfairness of the access that a specific set of clients have to the offshore as ways of not shouldering their tax burden.


Mossack Fonseca Universe.pngFusion


US-based clietns MF.png


The offshore island was once seen as a model to understand oceanic expanse, and marking sea travel.  In the earliest forms of mapping:  early maps of Indonesia islands, the Marshall Islands, and archipelagic spaces oriented one to space partly by island travel.  The meanings attached to islands have encouraged us to think about space and spatial travel, moreover, and suggest a discovery of new spaces, new laws, and new economic practices that open a new geography of sanctioned macroeconomic practices.  But the complex virtual archipelago of secretive shell companies established in offshore sites like the British Virgin Islands, a self-governing overseas territory, where some 215,000 companies were established to evade national tax codes by the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, whose newly exposed 2.6 terabytes of files help to delineate how registered agents create a hidden network of clients, shareholders, and beneficiaries.

The expanse of the offshore might be best measured in the amount of monies that are funneled through its sites–as much as their location.  For the fungibility of monies in the world of the offshore defines its largely opaque transactions.  The economy of the British Virgin Islands is based on the over 950,000 offshore companies incorporated to evade paying taxes on their earnings, as tax shelters set up in other British jurisdictions  from Jersey to the Isle of Man to British Anguilla.  Since 1977, they have grown as a constellation-like web of shell companies, whose hidden relations are difficult to visualize, if not to map, since they bear such baroque relations to terrestrial space, far beyond the sight of the regulatory agencies of big finance.  In an age of the increased proliferation of big data, the release of the Panama Papers hard drives can reveal a data map of the ties between clients and shareholders as a universe of financial ties only waiting to be explored–if whose identities are hidden to protect the clients involved.


Mossack Fonseca Universe.pngFusion


The data map showing clients, shareholders, incorporation agents and companies using Mossack Fonseca’s services suggests the extent of the complexity of the offshore as a network of big finance, all to real for its participants, as much as a conventional creation, with limited overlap to actual space.  Indeed, the intentionally unclear relations to the sovereign taxation systems they evade, by relations between clients, companies, and beneficiaries benefiting individuals from David Cameron to Vladimir Putin to FIFA boss Gianni Infantino.  And if Fusion figured the uncovering of this previously opaque parallel universe of big finance as something like a space of interstellar travel, conjuring the wonder of discovery as if from the perspective of the pilot’s chair in Star Trek’s USS Enterprise, the Mossack Fonseca Universe revealed in 2.6 terabytes suggest a global financial network enabled not as a set of spatial relations but unearth the archeology of networks smoothed by the frictionless transaction of funds across a globalized world.

The expansion of the “offshore” as a conceit has created something of a negative universe, and a new way of locating financial transactions in a globalized economy, promoted in part by multinationals and as conveniences for the super-rich:  as capital circulates globally, the range of sites declaring themselves immune to sovereign tax codes offer wrinkles in space for concealing earnings in the cloak of legal secrecy.   For the recent growth of the ‘offshore’ exists to offer secrecy and is designed to render invisible the storage of monies as a condition of their existence; the recent release of the Panama Papers offers a rare peek inside this network of financial services otherwise removed from public scrutiny–rarely disclosed–that suggests the expansion of its web of financial services and the intensity of activity of global finance located in the sites of the offshore.


6.  The expansion of the offshore as places that lie outside a sovereign taxation code, and in international waters, are often advertised for its circumscription of tax codes.  They are often seen as invitations to tax avoidance of one space, as much as a place or space.  The offshore seems almost non-place of globalism, existing both on the map but taking its spin from being off the map of taxation, and negatively defined by its autonomy from tax codes.  The effective global subtraction of money from tax franchises–and investment in local national infrastructures–suggests a scheme of global injustice and tax evasion of massive proportions, irrationally expanding as the options of offshore ‘investment.’

The increased number of sites for legally sequestering huge sums of money reflect the capabilities of offshore sites to secretly store funds for an array of dubious clients, including foreign oligarchs, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, African dictators, Mexican drug lords, oil sheiks and multinationals, who seek to sequester huge amounts of money and preserving their own anonymity–a global problem, as President Obama observed.  The irony is apparent.  By offering opportunities for tax minimization, security, and easy access, the offshore persists as a system of “pirate banking,” even as big data makes increasingly evident wealth disparities across the inhabited world that the offshore helps reinforce–even as banks, from HSBC and Credit Suisse, as Mossack Fonseca, deny any wrongdoing in establishing further offshore shell companies to avoid taxes, or the rationale of the expanded role of the offshore in the global economy.




7.  But the recent expansion of the concept of “overseas territories” of extraterritoriality to regions or places that can declare and negotiate their own status as offshore sites has occasioned a dramatic expansion of self-designated tax havens impossible to see save as unfortunate artifacts of an increasingly globalized world.  For the growth of the offshore as sites that create concordats to evade local tax policies suggest a new relation to mapped space, as well as for the sequestering of capital in overly privileged ways.  Although international waters once suggested remove from the law of the land, the increasing currency of offshore sites in an age of the multinationals and big finance have allowed the unprecedented expansion of the category of the offshore for private ends.  Now unmoored from geography, the offshore defines preserves of tax amnesty, not subject to sovereign state’s oversight, or less stringent regulation and not even necessarily situated at sea or difficult to navigate.  Inviting corporations to have bases at their tax havens, provided that they don’t engage in business with local citizens.  As if the mirror-image of growing global crises of refugees that promise to define the twenty-first century, the artificial shrinkages of tax franchises globally is endemic to the globalized world.

The autonomy of the offshore was early mapped in the stick-charts of Micronesia, whose carefully curved pieces of wood or bamboo are laced with fibre, representing the effects of currents and winds on canoes, and including islands as bits of coral or cowrie shells from the ocean, to map place in a mutable nautical space defined by ocean currents, winds, and atolls in order to encode sailing directions for inter-island travel:


283100dd7518d80835e04c34c45e709fBritish Museum (Nineteenth or early Twentieth Century chart from Marshall Islands)


Stick Map.pngNational Library of Australia (Marshall Islands, 1974)


The sense of land that lay offshore was a fascination of the isolari of the medieval Europe, offering works that sated visual and imaginative curiosity that caused them to be widely reproduced, surviving even in an era that saw widespread innovation and expansive of comprehensive terrestrial coverage in global projections.  The genre of isolari indeed rapidly expanded during the age of Atlantic discoveries, as they preserved places of recent discovery or unknown status.  If we long considered such islands outside of the regions of broadest settlement an emblem of the remote, the offshore has re-emerged with a vengeance in the post-war years as a fiction of locations lying outside taxable lands, areas of extraterritoriality, even if it existed onshore–the new offshore lies at judicial if not spatial remove, where businesses and bank accounts relocate to reduce tax liabilities.

Their expansion in ever-growing numbers reflect the broader currency of reducing tax liabilities in a globalized world.  Offshore islands and areas lie outside the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEC’s), and derive from the status of offshore islands from Nevis to Nauru in International Waters subject to the Law of the Seas, the reconstruction of inland sites as actually lying offshore, and as such offering tax immunity to those interested in secreting large sums of monies–or profits from overseas trade–from tax authorities and the obligation of taxation.  And in the age of the multinationals and big finance, the winds and currents around an island or the effects of the environment on arrival are less the point than the offshore sites where funds can be deposited, or places have been legally defined as lying outside the  economic integrity and tax codes of sovereign states.  In an odd victory of the jurisdictional map, the constitution of an extra-territorial offshore is  legally redefined as a tax haven, effectively constituting a funnel for global capital to disappear outside of the ecosystem of notions of sovereignty that reign on land.  

For the offshore attracts the interests of individuals and of multinational companies–or, rather, the capital an individual or company accumulates, whose monies for practical purposes disappear from the visibility of the rest of the world–rather than individuals alone.  In ways that prompt reflection on the characterization of corporations as individuals, this offshore is increasingly only to a few.  Whereas overseas territories took advantage of their extraterritoriality–the British Virgin Islands or Cayman Islands–such sites where shadow companies can be based and their profits stored without possibility of taxation have proliferated with globalization.  The increased propagation of tax shelters, havens, or mitigations warp not only world finance but exemplify the warping of sovereign taxation of multinational within a globalized world.  And the weird promise “going offshore” offers an increasing number of sites who have declared themselves tax havens for multinationals and private assets provides a tragic post-colonial legacy:  the expansion of the offshore has led to an increased subtraction of monies otherwise destined to social infrastructure and public services in nations whose super-rich and corporations stow their profits and capital offshore and overseas to evade local taxation laws.


8.  The notion of the “offshore” invokes the conceit of a law of the seas, absent from the conventions of those states based ashore, it is based on the convenience of globalized markets and frictionless borders that facilitate money from escaping tax codes.  For the offshore defines those places where the conventions of tax regulations don’t exist or are reduced for the shell companies who they attract:  while offshore sites were once artifacts of the post-colonial world, actual islands   from Delaware to Latvia, Luxembourg to the Cayman Islands and Monaco to the Bahamas, “offshore” places invite commercial secrecy and non-disclosure of income in an age of big data.  The provision of financial secrecy–at one time confined to Switzerland–where  huge sums of money are able to be sequestered with little eye to the public good, removed from banking regulations or oversight, and invite not only sites for the accumulation of untold individual riches but money laundering for multinationals and the super-rich.

Late capitalism has newly colonized “offshore” spaces that first existed as sites in the post-colonial world as refuges from state authority, whose existence is tacitly tolerated even by the World Bank.  (Obama has long sought to recoup funds from offshore sites, despite deep GOP opposition, but his new tax policy to return a share of the $2 trillion invested in hidden sites ‘overseas’ to avoid taxation, suggests a single-tax of overseas profits at a very low 14%, to be followed by future foreign earnings at 19%–a hugely sizable cut from the current statutory rate; this, however, despite stiff Republican objections to any tax assessment that would challenge the current loopholes.)  And even as bankruptcies have offered the opportunity to bring about the impositions of restrictions on the self-proclaimed sites of the offshore, from Switzerland to Cyprus, the proliferation of new “offshore spaces” from Latvia to Tibet stand to undermine any gains of the curtailing of wealth in shell companies nominally located in offshore space.

The timeline of the transformation of the “offshore”that lay outside the rules that sovereign states and governments have established, and outside of which they exist, suggest an insufficiently scrutinized genealogy of the cartographical imaginary.  For while offshore have long exercised curiosity as destinations of imagined exploration, located on the margins or edges of maps from the middle ages to early modern Europe, the rehabilitation of the offshore in an over-mapped world suggest the rise of evasive practices in an age of near-ubiquitous mapping.  Any maps that exist of the current offshore sites would be less understood as actual destinations, of course.  Rather, the enticing climates, seashores, and beaches of most offshore sites serve only to help designate sites that seem to suspend regular conventions of the overseen, relaxing the protocols of public oversight as if to legitimize the subtraction of tax scrutiny in suggestive in insidiously harmful ways. In setting their conventions apart from the states, offshore places exist to provide sites for multinationals to evade corporate taxation to which they would otherwise remain subject and alternate architectures for the circulation of profits on a global playing board that is configured as an international confidence game of ever-expanding independently negotiated tax havens–as well as longstanding overseas territories.

In a recent interactive visualization, tax havens are sites rendered as dots superimposed atop the contours of sovereign states, but attracting visual attention as if bright spots on a darkly drawn field that one might associate with the terrain of tax imposition.


Current:former:Emerging Tax Havens.pngIB TImes/Carto DB


The emerging spots noted in purple suggest the migration of tax havens to Africa  (Nairobi and Gambia, where online registration of corporations will last but thirty minutes) and Asia (Tibet), but their predominance in Europe and the Caribbean.  The ecology of the tax havens across the globe suggest a parasitical growth on the conventions of the postcolonial world, whose expansion bodes poorly for perpetuating economic divides.


9.  Offshore islands were of course long beacons of particular curiosity not only for cartographers but for those inland for their alleged difference from the worlds of the landlocked, from which they were long seen as the refuges as well as places of exile.  But the extent to which the offshore entities suggest a corporate “Utopia”–no place, literally, or no place on the financial map of tax authorities–might be examined in the notion of the fictions of the offshore in Thomas More’s playful dialogue of 156

The narrative of More’s Utopia hinges on the fiction of the offshore: the traveller Raphael Hythloday offered More and Peter Giles evoked the wonder of an offshore island in the playful dialogue about governance as a possible example of good government readers might entertain.  In the age when the description of “New Islands” within the letters of Amerigo Vespucci’s letters voyages to the “novae insulae” had become a bestseller in the first age of printing, More imagined encountering a sailor who witnessed these new islands, of Portuguese descent, and had undertaken further offshore explorations after he was released from service after sailing on all four of the Vespucci’s voyages.  The sailor characterized by his travel-worne “sunburnt face” that bore visible record of his nautical travels, encouraged by his aptness at using the compass to explore offshore worlds, revealed him as a new social type of the mariner, and mediator of the offshore that had grown with new appreciation of the removed and in-between.

“There is no man this day living that can tell you of so many strange and unknown peoples and countries as this man,” learned More, as did the reader, and he becomes a conduit for news about foreign economic practices and laws that serve as a mirror to reflect on the partitioning of land, legal custom, care of the poor and the public management of economic wealth as well as to reflect on what constitutes a civilized state–in the senses of both a sovereign and human state.  At the end of his voyages with Vespucci, Raphael had “obtained license from Master Amerigo . . to be one of the twenty-four who at the end of the last voyage were left behind” at the farthest point of the final of Vespucci’s four New World voyages–in a fortress in present-day Brazil–and skilled with the compass led him to travel to further offshore regions, from Calcutta to Ceylon, to encounter the island Utopia.  That island’s inhabitants served to exemplify the alternatives of economy, social class, justice, and good government in More’s dialogue, as the offshore provided the form of good government that More asked readers to entertain as a criticism to the alternatives to the status quo.  While the island of Utopia was a counter-mapping, in a sense, of the race for colonizing the New World, its presence provides a precursor to the dystopia that the current proliferation of the offshore have created as a syphon of public funds from sovereign space.  Whereas the imagined geography of Utopia offers a site for reflecting on economics as a custom, and policies not only of the redistribution of wealth but the common use of the land and best customs of justice, the growth of the offshore has, mutatis mutandi, become a negative example, but an example nonetheless, for the institution of tax exemptions that universally subtract from the public good and a global conceit that undermines the authority of the sovereign state–and how states can meet the social needs of their inhabitants in the manner that laws on the island of Utopia allowed.

New offshore spaces of alternative societies and world offered More, famously, as a riff on the discussion of the state.  Vespucci has described an expanded offshore in that provided such a fascinating glimpse of “novae insulae” as alternative governments and societies, echoing the lost island of Atlantis.   These islands were sites of differently scented flowers and abundant metals, whose native inhabitants went without clothing, and seemed to lack names other than those which the European visitors bestowed on them as new offshore spaces of potential wealth as sites of trade and sites for mining precious metals, but also new spaces for negotiating good government, even if the early practices of the colonialization of offshore valued the forms of good government discovered on these new islands than the best ways of appropriating goods from this new offshore world:



Lettera 1494



Once clear lines drawn between the inland and offshore, in More’s imagination, defined the different natures of the settled world from the sea for European mapmakers, and transatlantic travel focussed largely on the settled coast.  The fascination of the offshore is preserved in cartographical records–that largely focus on the shoreline.  Although several Pacific archipelagos formed their own notions of mapping inter-island navigation by winds, currents, and seas, terrestrial mapping was oriented around its shore.   In an age of globalization, the newfound prominence of the offshore in the spatial imagination rehabilitates extraterritorial islands and tax asylums as sites that attract capital, as well as tourists, in a particularly disquieting pull of the financial gravity of global finances that has the effect of subtracting social services in inland states; rather than exist for their denizens, the offshore only gains reality as a fiction for the financial circuits of multi-nationals, but trumps whatever curiosity the offshore long held.


10.  But in the slipper map of global finance, capital flows are routes removed from the interests local inhabitants; the places of the offshore rarely appear on the map, but create a buzz of capital flows that bend borders or seep across frontiers of the global economy where money escapes from government or from good governance.





Such offshore sites are rarely mapped because of their remove from the monitoring of financial movements and information allows them rarely to be seen in aggregate–because they lack any coherence or continuity of their own, and exist as legal fictions to store and secrete huge monies or funds.  The dramatic multiplication of sanctioned sites to preserve a resting place for profits or funds reveal a sense of place that exists in radically different ways.  Indeed, the sanctioning of the offshore suggests a bifurcation of conventions for its inhabitants and the investors or shell companies, anonymous corporations and almost fictional banks, that replicate the power structures of a colonial world in a post-colonial present, particularly terrifying for how they attract the wealth of post-colonial elites.

Although offshore sites often have few actual physically present residents, offshore entities are legal fictions whose attraction as places exist on paper, juxtaposing several spaces in a real place that is often always less accessible to their actual inhabitants but exists for multinationals and the super-rich.  And as income inequality has emerged as the defining issue of  the post-9/11 post-Cold War post-American hegemony world, the unmasking of the offshore as a site of pervasive criminality that goes beyond evading taxes, but a system of bending sovereign laws for criminal and corporate interests, allowing multi-nationals, mafia members, corrupt politicians, drug dealers, and the super-rich to evade national laws in ways that undermine any social confidence in nation states–or in the equality of tax laws.  But even as whistle-blowers and activists have opened troves of digital information to expose wrong-doing–as in the Panama Papers, the cool reception whistle-blowers face within the press and from their own countries suggest the deep desire to retain cloaks of secrecy about such hidden dealings that perpetuate deep inequalities of wealth.

If they are the actual ancestors of utopias–places with no real place, save on the map–the heterotopia of the offshore are actual places organized by legal proclamation and consensus, but which don’t exist on the map; they are the remainder of the post-colonial world which serve the interests of the logic of big capital, in-between places removed from the map of tax sovereignty, or territoriality, which enjoy an ambiguous position in relation to spatial continuity.  Whereas the islands of the offshore are often seen as endangered spaces, removed and remote often overlooked details on maps–




–the new slipperiness of the offshore as financial refuges of the post-colonial world exist as extraterritorial entities gain materiality by the ease of their promise to secretly sequester capital not easily found or tracked, falling as it does between the interstices of nation states.  The premium of the secrecy policies of these entities.  These offshore sites are overlooked by the Wold Bank because they are so central to multinationals, since they in essence lie off the map.  Indeed, their secrecy as sites to deposit profits perpetuate their attraction and continued existence in ways their mapping and the mapping of flows of moneys into their banks and shell companies are especially useful since in helping reveal.  While maps, the tacit recognition of such unseen areas seem to be exceptions in an age of ever-increasing globalization, but they are created by its demands for sheltering finance from the very national entities where most of the sales and revenues of multi-national corporations occur, but where their profits can be sheltered or recycled, outside of view of the taxman.  For such lands of tax asylum create new islands, whether actually offshore or not, in the ocean of big finance.

If the islands of the offshore in New Zealand suggest spaces needing preservation, the offshore of global finance are constructions of legal conventions, even if they hold their longtime allure as lying outside the ambit of the known world.  Rather than far-off places, they are sites of the actually intentionally overlooked–which boast the ability to be overlooked, more accurately, and where money can be conserved without being touched for public needs or expenditures through the local tax systems that would otherwise profit from them.  In this sense, too, such offshore sites are removed from the possible public services and infrastructures that would benefit from their taxation.  Rather than sites of conservation, they are conserved by the very multinationals that the World Bank seems hesitant to confront.




11.  The globalized economy of recent years reveals a rapidly shifting order, where refuges from financial oversight are elided with spaces removed from land-based governance, to which most governments effectively agree to turn the other eye.   They become the “other spaces” of globalization, less defined by their own inhabitants but their attraction of foreign capital.  Historically originating in sites understood as dependencies that were the inheritance of a colonial world, the robust economy of the offshore archipelagos of tax-immunity in places from the Bahamas, Cayman Islands, British Virgin Islands, Samoa, Malta or Antigua and the Barbados have become islands in the minds of tax lawyers, declaring their own tax immunity on paper, and gaining new prominence on a global map as a destination for corporate monies as much as the tax shelters of the wealthy they’ve long served–but are the most prominent islands of the mind of the twenty-first century.

The growing currency the offshore in global financial markets has gained traction as a legal fiction corresponds to the growth of tacit consensus  allowing the flight from local tax codes, and the secretive reigns.  If the notions of utopia, or island refuges, might have existed on the horizon of earlier spatial imaginaries, scattershot tax havens across the South Seas, Mediterranean, or Caribbean suggest a congestion of financial capital that has run offshore from the markets they were generated, increasingly warping the destination of money in the world’s economy and ensuring that the playing field will stay as uneven as possible.  Rather than a set region, the sites of the offshore are declared by fiat, through legal conventions and tax laws where local tax revenues are in part foregone–and others invited to store money there without impunity and guarantees of full transparency.  This encourages the multiplication of shadow companies, existing as storefronts, but with few employees, and anonymous entities that are more profuse than the actual dwellers who live in the relatively small sites of the offshore.

The flow of funds to tax havens from the United States not only dramatically expanded in the past twenty years, Gabriel Zucman has shown, but exponentially increased from the start of the second millennium at a rate at which approaches the asymptotic in altering the global economy:  while corporate tax rates haven’t changed since 1980, tax avoidance in the US alone has grown so endemic to cut effective corporate tax revenues in half, from 30% to 15%:  Zucman dates the spread of aggressive minimizing of tax bills during the 1980s increased the notion of tax evasion by using offshore shelters to nourish the growth of the offshore, removing previous possibilities of domestic reinvestment and sending money offshore.


Zucman funds to tax havensWall Street Journal/Real-Time Economics


12.  In an increasingly globalized economy, where frontiers are erased, the recent increased growth of off-shore tax “havens” echoed the status of islands of invention–as the eponymous island of good government described Thomas More’s Utopia–but are devised as fictions by teams of lawyers, as much as by writers as playful cartographical conceits.

They are utopias of their own–places where money can be stored without oversight from rapacious local tax authorities.  The mixed, unreal spaces of the offshore sites, where the money does not “exist” in the reality of local taxation structures that construct one of the verities of the modern sovereign state, and once deposited there monies enjoy the secrecy that they are guaranteed as if they do not exist, as if new sacred spaces for big finance, as a cultural space where the monies that enter are neither monitored nor measured, but exist as a place that juxtaposes the benefits and entitlements of the post-colonial spaces–the license that places like Barbadoes, the British Virgin Islands, Hong Kong, or allow their wealthier visitors, rather than their residents–with the globalization of big finance and growth of multi-nationals in the world.

The place-less utopia of early modern Europe were sites where the costs of life we experience were re-engineered by government with or miraculously absent or just not assessed.  In contrast, the new image of the offshore provide benefits of not assessing taxes or publishing earnings of corporations, as well as individuals–in ways that benefit from the erasure of frontiers for capital to flow and create new sites for revenues to be shuttled and stored in a range of tax-free ways.  Rather than suggesting the proliferation of possible lands of habitation in the age of discoveries, whose boundaries of peacefulness suggested new self-contained worlds that stood as a foil to the expropriation of colonialist ties to New Worlds, the new offshore offers sites for the extraction of formerly taxable forms of income from the public services of habited lands–and seems a virtual kingdom of new discovery itself.   The offshore defines itself negatively, by remove from other nations, and the frictionless economy whose pathways it helps smooth and foster, rather than as an example of good government.  But if these Utopia have to actual presence in the world, and exist on the map alone, if located in destinations to which one can physically travel, they exist only as outside sovereign oversight.  Such post-colonial spaces of removed sovereignty offer the super-wealthy the chance to enjoy indulgences within a  dependency without the direct oversight to which we’re accustomed in the modern state, and invite the creation of shell companies to funnel global profits at mitigated tax levels.

Is the “offshore” a Utopia for the globalized world?   Not really, as it offers no real exemplification of good government at all.  If Thomas More’s elegant dialogue described the “public weal of the new isle called Utopia,” explored by traveller Raphael Hythloday, which “neither we remembered to inquire of him nor he to tell us in what part of the new world Utopia is situate,”it belonged the the discovery of a new offshore of the sixteenth century, visited by a man who had “joined himself in company with America Vespucci and in the three last voyages of those four that be now in print and abroad in every man’s hands, . . . . continued still in his company, saving that in the last voyage he came not home again with him,” but was left behind in a castello or fort in the offshore world, probably south o the equator near modern Brazil.  If the site of Utopia was never made clear by More to his readers, in a place he called “the country of Gulike”–an imagined site of the offshore, which he conjured for his readers by an actual map, if no doubt in response to the curiosity and credibility that maps afforded not only as alternate lands but places where distinct forms of government.  (The discovery of the New World provided, for More, a basis for the questioning of the verities of kingship and royal power.)



More, Utopia

The voyages of Vespucci’s De novis insulis led to the cartographical celebration of the existence of “novae insulae.”  The subsequent proliferation of  the wonders of insularity, in which More participated, was often expressed by “thinking archipelagically, rather than continentally,” as John Gillis put it.  Sebastian Muenster’s 1543 mapping of new islands in the world–“Novae Insulae“–revealed a fascinating combination of the mythical sites of the Hesperides and Fortunate Isles, so that islands seem to lie forever just at the horizon–including the mention of some 7,448 isles off of the coast of Japan, as if imagining something like bridges for island-hopping across the ocean, in a re-imagining of what Gillis terms the “islomania” of the middle ages, undergirded by nautical mappings oceanic space.  The archipelago of islands outside Europe lay perpetually on the horizon of oceanic travel.


munster--novae insulaeSebastian Münster, “Novae Insulae” (Basel 1552)
The attempts to imagine such insularity is wonderfully illustrated in the Hunt-Lenox Globe, long of uncertain date, but now potentially dated to the turn of the late fifteenth century, which shows the profusion of individual islands that stretch from the tip of Africa to the Americas, in this view from the South Pole.


Novus Terra Sancta Crucis nypl.digitalcollections.f7a0eb50-66fb-0133-9c56-00505686a51c.001.v

Hunt Lenox Globe (New York Public Library)


The mapping of islands provided a popularization of the discoveries that, analogously, didn’t really sort anything out, but provided a new sense of the expansion of frontiers.  For the image of the expansion of islands from the coasts of Africa and Spain to Cathay were able to be navigated, suggests the presence of a caravel, wildly out of scale as if able to domesticate oceanic space, as evident in the flag planted near Hispaniola.  If Atlantis was a paradigm of the lost island kingdom for the ancients, but utopian islands took their place as “islands of the mind” that stood, Gillis argues, for shared hopes of the continued existence of new frontiers.  If the map showed “the many islands that were discovered in the big ocean by Spain,” as if to process unknown spaces, such insular paradises that were to proliferate in the early modern period have gained new concreteness in a more pernicious sense in the tax shelters that similarly proliferate on our modern maps as refuges from sovereign tax codes–borderless refuges outside of state oversight.


13.  The variety of these new tax-free utopia exist only for the perspective of the multi-national or the super-wealthy, but are treasured for the inscrutability of the financial exchanges that their residents and conventions provide.  The notion of the offshore retains its sense of extraterritoriality, but the example of the offshore lies less in the possibility to exemplify new forms of good government than perhaps to exemplify the counter-narratives of civil society, by providing refuges for monies that might be taxed for the public good.  As a lack of transparency of taxation is permitted by local conventions, offshore utopia, dressed up as post-colonial territories, and sites whose climate seems more suited to vacations than work, serve effectively subtracting monies from the financial fiasco or from public revenues–a steep challenge to public interest. And if the map once described an archipelagic space, the map’s fiction is flaunted by the conceit of the offshore–there is no real map, save that which exits on paper, which is not really a map of habitation at all, but only a convention.


BN-KN037_taxhav_G_20150928095921Glen Hunt/Getty Images


Rather than actual archipelago, the spawning of sites of the offshore in the Petri dishes of globalization suggest a new attitude towards earnings that suggests one of the new epistemological spaces of a globalized economy.  Whereas More imagined the self-contained world on an island as alternate versions of habitation, whose customs inverted structures of the social order, offering pointed critiques of the existing status quo, with their universal literacy, absence of war, and elevation of mind above commerce, as mental refuges from a growing state, the recent proliferation of offshore shelters for multi-nationals on actual islands–Grenada, the Cayman Islands, Guernsey, the Isle of Man, Hong Kong or the Marshall Islands–offer refuges from taxation and preserves for the ultra-rich that became sites of corporate relocation.   For by preferring secret financial services–or raising the threshold of privacy–earnings and monies simply register as unreported to other government agencies–at least, that is, until they are leaked, and reveal a wide range of murky secret bank accounts.

The offshore has grown dramatically as a more than metaphorical sites for secreting profits for corporations, and sites for the settlement of extracted wealth and of storing money without state oversight, in a particular parasitical relation to the sovereign state in the age of remapping big finance of multi-national who no longer needs a physical location that lines up with territoriality, and able to evade or redesign state laws in their personal interest.  Indeed, the dirty secret of a globalized economy seems to be the proliferation of off-shore PO Boxes and shadow companies, where money is siphoned away from national taxes or the public good–and that allow global corporations, who remove themselves from any actual “site” to maintain their remove from any undue economic authority.




There is no single site for a utopia, removed in the seas, but in the conceit of the offshore, there be shelters, removed from any assessment on land–rather than microcosms of the world that might take their place in actual atlases beside newly discovered lands, offering refuges for the imagination–if not the desires for the continued belief in alternate social structures.  The notion of spaces for sequestering capital out of public view.  As Economist Gabriel Zucman noted recently in The Hidden Wealth of Nations, tax havens hide some 8% of the world’s financial wealth, redistributing it in ways that are not accessible to nations, by the favors of bankers and international law of multinational corporations.   In ways that stand to decrease the will of many to continue to pay regard income as taxable or pay taxes, the expansion of the offshore as a place to hide money from nations suggestions one of the greatest and most powerful cartographical innovations and inventions of the globalized economy, seats that offer non-nationals or foreign-owned corporations a low or nonexistent tax rate to attract investment.  If forty-one existed in 2000 by the OECD, some eighty-one tax havens and offshore finance centers were counted by Tax Justice Network recently, in an attempt to map all sites that provide possibilities of offering possibilities of secrecy for shell companies or trusts–as well as low or non-existent taxes to lure companies to their unique legal systems and shores.  If the national taxes lost in this shadow economy of the concealed range from the hundreds of millions of dollars for the United States, Germany, Russia, Italy, Brazil, France and China, the lowest percentages lost from state GDP’s remain the US and China by far–only around 2.3% compared to upwards of 10% for Brazil, Russia, and Italy–perhaps encouraging a basis for its continuation, despite the annual disappearance of nearly two trillion of taxes overall.


14.  The generous financial benefits corporations provide for their employees might seem a basis to legitimize their right for subtraction from the local economies of mere nations, the model seems designed to create tiers of global inhabitants–those graced with ties to corporations with off-shore tax “havens” and not.  If islands have long exercised a particular fascination within the imagination, the all too apparent realism of these islands that exist to evade taxes–rather than to be actually lived on or experience–are in a sense the ultimate bitter twist of a post-modern world, for tax shelters can exist on islands without anyone actual being there–they remain legal fictions, as much as geographical ones, places where money is funneled and sheltered from the brewing storms that exist not on the open seas, but in the nations whose own economies are increasingly broke, even if they often look like similar paradises unlike the lived experience of the tax-paying multitudes condemned to live under governments and the conventions of the majority–so that one might feel disenfranchised to be paying any taxes in the first place.


Aerial-view-of-the-Cayman-008Cayman Islands


Such bucolic offshore tax havens are often not literally offshore, but include cities and countries–some in the United States–yet are removed from any examination of income.  There might not be actual boats to arrive there, but legal structures have enabled local banking systems that evade consensus about tax obligations and allow capital flight, both in terms of individual income and trade, that effectively warps the world economy, subtracting from many nations monies that would be dedicated to budgets for public health or infrastructure repairs, and secretly removing them to offshore jurisdictions.


Offshore jurisdictionsGrant Thornton


Offshore havens exploit the possibilities of an absence of oversight or decreased friction in a borderless global economy, where funds can be stored outside oversight by legal fictions, facilitated by investment firms and private banks, who proffer services of a new form of cartographical expertise to locate funds in legal subsidiaries and fronts to hide increased billions from the tax man in a global sanctioning of secretly storing sums of money, out of the sight of tax authorities, that equal the combined American and Japanese GDP–subtracting billions of billions of dollars from oversight, evading tax payments in ways that have increasingly become the norm for wealthy countries from Russia to Kuwait to Bolivia, China and Brazil, who suffer from monies sent offshore removed from public goods.  The “top losers” in such a game of the offshore are located in Eastern Europe, but also in surprising sits in the Middle East, where money is spent by European governments and the United States to contain the growing refugee crisis, while Iraqis and Kuwaiti stored billions of assets offshore as of 2010 in a rigged global scheme.


Capital Fligth.pngTax Justice Network


The United States seems absent from the list of largest losers to offshore tax shelters, but is not exempt–and an odd case since it contains many “offshore” shelters in itself.

If the United States has reflected the expansion of such “big losers” of the growth of the offshore as a destination of financial assets of the super-rich, but the denying of billions of revenue to the nation is not a purely national practice–so much as a symptom of financial globalization.  By 2012, 82% of the largest publicly traded companies in the USA booked revenues to offshore destinations–from Bank of America to General Electric to Pfizer to Microsoft to Citigroup–in ways that reflect not only a practice of the financial sector but a loophole at which the G8 and World Bank seemed to have looked the other way.  In the United States alone, as of 2013, the losses or fiscal siphoning of over 184 billion in federal and state tax revenue can be mapped by how much states have lost per citizen of monies that are stowed in tax-free destinations offshore, creating a local onus on each taxpayer and citizen that is tolerated, but felt in losses to the infrastructure:



Individual states could minimize the abuse, but are loath to detract from local employment and local economies, although Montana and Oregon have gone there, and Maine and Massachusetts seem poised to follow.  But the policy is not one that can be eradicated nationally–if the loser is the nation.  But since multinationals take advantage of the absence of clear borders by sending their revenues to offshore tax havens where they offices in order to avoid paying the share of corporate income taxes they’d be due, they’ve been allowed to effectively reduce the taxes they need to pay to such low levels by an increasing variety of tax-shifting strategies, the redistribution of global finance is one difficult to engage with for individual states.  Yet so long as state laws allow them to take advantage of this loophole–who can blame each for following an opportunity that is made available and on the books?–we might generate further local revenues, although the global paths of tax-shifting is so broadly institutionalized on a global level.

As of 2015, the largest American companies stored some $21 trillion offshore, however, creating a massive shortfall in tax revenues that is felt across the country, and results in far lesser circulating cash–regions offering low tax liabilities including Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Bahamas and the Cayman Islands, but also the Netherlands, Cyprus, Switzerland and Ireland.  And if the 2016 federal budget theoretically forces fees to be imposed on the shell companies that use tax deferrals to shuffle half a trillion dollars, Republicans like Paul Ryan, decrying the tax-and-spend tactics of a Democratic administration tried to obstruct the minimizing of tax obligations by offshore subsidiaries.


src.adapt.960.high.US_companies_with_most_offshore_cash_(in_billions)__chartbuilder.1444161467399.jpgAl Jazeera USA


The companies are not “doing evil“–however much one might want to say Google is–but maximizing profits.  But when Apple is secreting such a large sum of 181.1 billion dollars offshore, the US government forgoes some $59.2 billion in taxes.  Yet Apple–and all the thirty companies that store $1.4 trillion offshore–are complying with federal law, which allows the reduction of federal tax revenues by some $90 billion each year.

Can one trace the secret paths of where all of that money actually goes or the means by which it migrates to destinations offshore?  By the ingenious planning of routes that subvert actual global economy’s geography, such refueling of money among Google subsidiaries in the UK suggest the scheme of monetary transfers by which taxes are avoided by being funneled to subsidiaries that serve as tax-shelters, furtively transferring money by telex around the world, removed from its actual space to escape local tax codes, using the tax structures created in Bermuda, Ireland, and the Netherlands to secrete some $43 billion, booking money from major overseas markets through Ireland and storing it in Bermuda.


Google's Offshore Subsidiary:  Tracking the Money


A more complex actual map of the new archipelago of off-shore subsidiaries that evade sovereign tax codes by remapping corporate structures in ever-efficient webs of tax havens that challenge the reaction of sovereignty to the map–and to corporate activity, even if Luxembourg, Curaçao, the Barbados, the Cayman Islands, British Virgin Islands, and Gibraltar are sites of Wal-Mart subsidiaries without any actual stores.




The occasional revelation of the hundreds of millions hidden in bank accounts at HBSC offer a different manner of a bank–HBSC–offering tax-free deposits, hidden from public view, in an offshore banking industry, holding a portion of the estimated $7.6 trillion held in total in overseas tax havens.  The funds held by the Geneva-based HBSC have been mapped in a reversed-image of globalized finance-in which Switzerland looms large, to be sure, but the holding hidden from states of Belgium, Venezuela, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the USA, and Great Britain are all particularly conspicuous, as is Italy–as is the virtual global map of holdings HBSC removes from public purview, and subtract from a global economy:


Swiss Leaks.pngInternational Consortium of Investigative Journalists


15.  All of which raises the question of how to most effectively map the sorts of negative spaces and warping of state economies and infrastructures that the growth of the offshore has fostered, the great unseen effect of globalization and friction-free finance of a the inventive if secretive banking practices of multinational firms.  For if one is mapping absences from taxable incomes, and transfers to offshore entities, the blurring of international business, international crime, super-wealthy individuals, blur the unethical and illegal with working models of the professional probity of high finance banking, but provide radically different sorts of the subtraction of tax dollars for different sovereign states–some of whom are far more equipped to deal with this shadow economy.  (The shelters that HBSC provided from, among others, Bashar al-Assad, Hosni Mubarak, and Tunisian Ben Ali provided means by which each ruler effectively subtracted their own fortunes from taxation by the states they purported to represent–as did the large number of political class from Britain, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Kenya, Romania, India, Liechtenstein, Mexico, Lebanon, Tunisia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Paraguay, Djibouti, Senegal, Philippines and Algeria with HBSC accounts.)

Thomas Piketty has observed sanguinely that “The offshore industry is a major threat for our democratic institutions and our basic social contract.”  Llest we think that these offshore paradises are ways of moving money outside of the United States, the World Bank and G8 should pay better attention because they offer quite dangerous ways for moving capital in developing countries offshore, in ways that create an even more uneven playing field–by maintaining local inequities in developing countries–where outflows may represent the double of inflows, subtracting huge sums of monies from local tax and the needed social services that they would otherwise provide.  The range of illicit financial flows that leave sub-Saharan Africa flow to islands as the British Virgin Islands, Delaware, Hong Kong and Mauritius, or northwards to tax havens in Europe:  western law has created the new map of illicit financial flows across borders, although the criminal wrong-goings is so often projected on developing countries–even if the color scheme here makes reading the map particularly difficult, the biggest sites of financial extraction are colored dark brown and black.


y9The Great Rip-Off Map/Global Witness


One might map an index of the illicit cash flows from developing colors, as that designed by E.J. Fagan, showing the proportions of illicit flows in the hundreds of millions, starting from China, but including Mexico, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, India, Indonesia, and the United Arab Emirates, among others, including South Africa and Poland, whose wealthy help nourish a shadow economy of relocated assets worldwide, which seems increasingly based in Asia, Indonesia, and the Middle East:


EJ Fagan -- Illicit tax flows from Developing Countries.pngKYC Map


The above map echoes what the Tax Justice Network tells us to be the new centers of capital flight to tax havens:


The New Centes of Capital Flight

Tax Justice Network/Art Market Monitor


The system is rigged, however, since the map has effectively been redrawn by the proliferation of tax islands, often in secrecy.  The sanctioning of spaces removed from regulation offer a terrain of global finance almost near to impossible to regulate or reform.  The staggering recent growth of the offshore has a price of attracting wealth, such that the amount of monies that have left developing economies since the 1970s would have exceeded their actual debts, James Henry found, as the proliferation of havens provide ways to divert financial flows from oil-rich or mineral-rich countries, secretly extracting wealth and assets from nations by evading local abilities of taxing for the rich, as taxes rise for the 99% unable to avoid taxes by shuffling monies offshore and diverting monies from public services–at considerable cost to all.  (Can one not notice that terrific rates of the extraction of monies from west African nations helped curtail infrastructure for networks of public health?)   The secrecy of the global offshore, an invisible archipelago of big finance, is  based on the secrecy of moving monies often only recently revealed.

The Great Rip-Off Map, from Global Witness, notes the number of shadow companies that syphon off capital in interactive form, offering an interactive illustration of shadow companies’ ties across the globe, each circle sized by the number of ties of anonymous shell companies, sheltering money in clusters of offshore sites–


Great Rip Off

Global Witness (click for interactive map of offshore sites)


The concentration of such anonymous companies–shell companies–suggests these financial fictions are the products of careful planning in the United States:



Anonymous Companies.png

Great Rip-Off Map: Global Concentration of Anonymous Companies (click for interactive version)


The distribution of monies funneled–profits withdrawn from the pool of public taxes–of a small site that hold the greatest number of shell companies, such as the British Virgin Islands, have been allowed to become global in reach, secreting funds from victims from Hong Kong to Saudi Arabia to Nigeria–and a multiplicity of sites in Sub-Saharan Africa.


Screen Shot 2016-02-14 at 10.11.48 PM


And the reach of an onshore offshore site such as Delaware, whose tax-laws make it a site of a dense congregation of anonymous is almost as sad a story of global financial extraction to which the World Bank continues to turn the other eye:


Anonymous Comapnies in Delaware

Global Witness–Great Rip-Off Map

The distribution of anonymous companies with victims in poor countries shows a story of global extraction of wealth.


Companies INvolving Poor CountiresThe Great Rip-Off Map–Anonymous Companies with Victims in Poor Countries


The numbers of shell companies in the BVI alone that extract monies from what might go to the public funds of poor countries is unconscionable–


Poor Coutnries BVI.png

The Great Rip-Off Map–Funds form Poor Countries Going to Shell Companies in BVI


Candidate Bernie Sanders may be right to wag an accusatory finger at financial giants of Wall Street who benefit from the existence of such offshore sites as Goldman Sachs–who have helped both to manage and structure aspects of the emergent geography of the offshore economy–the ever-increasingly lopsided geography of the global economy may prove to be something that even a sitting US President can do little to change.

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Filed under globalism, globalization, Mossak Fonseca, offshore, Panama Papers, tax shelters

Mapping the New Authoritarianism? Trumpism, Tampons, and the Nation

The founding father Alexander Hamilton historically feared that “the enterprises and assaults of ambition” on the new Republic in his federalist vision of good government of 1791, urging an active executive to protect the national good outside individual interests in his famous Report on Manufactures.  Hamilton worried about the balance between individual and national interests long before Donald Trump’s emergence as Republican candidate for the Presidency of the United States, or the notion of an individuality cult had seemed ever possible in the United States.  Indeed, Hamilton couldn’t have imagined the vaulting ambition that motivates Trump’s broad appeal as incarnating an image of individual success.  And although Lin Manuel Miranda himself, who has so revived love of Hamilton, hopefully predicted from his New York perspective that Trump’s candidacy was but “a New York annoyance gone national,” convinced (as were many) that the country would soon perceive The Donald’s antics, the reverse has occurred as his cult has grown:  but the growing mobs of Trumpism across the country–as if a new logic of collective action, motivated by anger and resentment, did not spontaneously generate.

If recent “flash-mobs” were orchestrated by Trump’s campaign or his supporters has created a new politics of fear and distrust, based on assurances that only The Donald can reform America, and provide the security and jobs that the nation demands.  The appearance of these “sudden mobs of men” seem to reflect a disgruntlement and fear at the prospect of  non-white majorities, but respond to deeply divided geography Trumpism didn’t create, and didn’t only spontaneously generate.  Indeed, they respond to a distorted and offensive picture of geography that Trump paints and perpetuates–a geography of an America whose members are abandoned, whose economy is decaying as others rise, and whose infrastructure has been neglected by politicians who think only of themselves.  The Donald has suggested the increased economic and social precarity of Trump supporters, and enjoyed the growth of Trumpism as a new logic of belonging particularly corrosive for the nation, both building on and fostering the existence of deep national divides.




If earlier elections were understood by being mapped the nation by red and blue states, the logic of this division had already eroded, as the uniformity of “red states” was questioned, and county-by-county distributions of voting preferences revealed, as GeoCurrents rightly noted, “many “red” areas in most “blue” states, just as there are quite a few “blue” zones in most “red” states” and the difficulty of translating the votes of densely populated areas that tend to vote Democrat into purely geographic terms that “exaggerate the extent of “Red America” since 2012–and the lack of clear divisions revealed in cartograms that abandoned the blue state/red state divide–


County-by-county cartogram 2012

and rather foreground the red-blue-purple electoral messiness of actual votes that are less clearly able to be projected with geographic fixity, but valuably foregrounded the emergence of a new “purple zone,” perhaps suitably puzzling by introducing the cognitive difficulties of discriminating questions of contiguity cartographers had long attempted to resolve in five- or eight-color maps to clarify breaks in geographically contiguous voting blocks.  However tempting it is to think that the certainty of Trumpism grows out of the goopier regions and blurred political affiliations of America, despite its largely “red and purple” character:


Shaded Cartogram 2012

The red-purple swirls of the nation provide fertile ground for Trumpism to grow.  It has been fostered not only from deep dissatisfaction with political parties, but disaffection from a political system–who feel they lack a political voice, and have been betrayed–and for whom Trump provides a movement.  draws on groups who rarely participated or registered before, and is based most centrally on the very demographic group of older, white men most certain to turn out to vote.  If the rise of Trumpism is tied to the fall of a two-party system, the decline of strong and united labor unions, and affiliations on social media, the map of Trumpism is poorly defined–in part as it doesn’t follow categories of place and space, so much as it follows emotions–resentments that crystallize complex fault-lines based on deep distortions of entitlements, global relations and fears that Trump’s person has come also to incarnate.  By predicting economic disaster–“our country is in serious trouble”–Trump has cathected with national emotions of discontent.  If the shocks on the sense of national well-being have grown with threats of terrorism, global refugeesimmigrationcontagion threats, and the misunderstood specter of climate change, Trump has championed himself as an anti-globalist candidate in a perfect foil for a nation he paints as beset by foreign and external threats.

Yet Trump’s personality cult has become something of a new gravitational center of the Presidential election, in ways that have led statistical mappers to crunch polls to define his constituency from the primaries where it emerged he has assembled 49% in a crowded feudal to the general election, turning to correlations with demographic variables for clarity with limited conclusiveness save the solipsistic self-identification as “Americans.”  In ways that defy the limits of campaign promises, The Donald has continued to use public platforms to promise he will be “the greatest jobs President God ever created,”  if the statement is without possible substantiation, and placed himself in a sacred narrative, evoking the very sort of sovereign ruler that Hamilton saw as the sort of threat to his notion of national identity that the unitary executive might resolve.  His promises have expanded to “restore law and order” in America, “unleash an American energy revolution like you’ve never seen before,” as well as “Make America Great Again,” provoked a cult-like enthusiastic devotion and messianic adulation terrifying in groundless belief on his personal abilities.   The Donald’s self-servingly encourages devotion among his followers ready to identify his interests with those of the country.  Promising an end to an end to “the era of division,” Trump presents himself as the only one able to respond to the refugee crisis, urban crime, and protecting personal safety–and attacks the inability of Democrats to provide any solutions to looming dangers in a political situation corrupt and “rigged“–a term that evokes a sense of political crisis.

As if reflecting his own delusions about government, whipped up in call-and-response rallies, Trump has sold an illusory geography that allows him to place America first, and substitute America for globalism in ways that have provided a mental refuge for its members.  As his adoption of the America First doctrine has urged affirmative tones echo anti-globalist cry of Brexit, in “re-delcaring our independence as a country,” the new geography Trump hawks is anti-globalist, but particularly potent in its cocktail of since it affirms that the enemies are everywhere but at home.  So angry is Trump’s vision of America, that his unitary executive responds not to economic frustration, but an urgency to remake the nation which, as widely observed, borrows freely from the violent rhetoric of hate groups in America–a rhetoric removed from media elites, closely tied to a spatial geography and demography that may not have been so likely to vote in the past, and seems to reject the political class, but asserts its patriotism to a new notion of the nation.   



Indeed, the authority of Republican candidate Trump is close the very persona by which he gained renown on his lucrative Reality TV shows, and he has used a brand to run for President of the United States that masks his utter absence of political credentials or experience–or military service.  But the persona has filled the airwaves and occupied attention that have substituted for political discourse.  And perhaps these echoes of outsider groups–and the particular resilience in certain areas of the electoral map–help explain that despite the dismissal of the earlier entertainment of presidential candidacy back in 1980, as his use of television to proclaim  he would only consider candidacy to win in 1988, or his 2000 pitch to be the political alternative Reform party candidate, a GOP splinter party, his appeal in many regions of the nation have forced his candidacy to be taken far more seriously than even he may have expected.  But his current candidacy openly appeals to voters’ self-interest in a way that many, oddly, find refreshing within political discourse–because it is organized outside politics, and against a political class.  The animosity it directs to others, without personal or collective ethics, target an eclectic range of “others” with an intensity more broadly aggressive than fascist movements from which it borrows many themes.

The Grim Donald, as a new Archie Bunker, glares out from his political posters as if to say, “you know who you are,” and I won’t tolerate it any more.




Trump’s political recognition has gone viral in a nation was not ready to process its inherent fraudulence.  Indeed, Trump has promoted himself as arbiter and Negotiator-in-Chief in an age of dire necessity, when other politicians have abandoned the country, and no one else’s self-interests coincide so closely with those of a nation in utmost need.  Trump’s global geography is more distorting than any acknowledged projection, in the increased attention that it focusses, omphalocentrically, on America alone.  (Only the Nez Perce Tribe’s Chief Sauti offered amnesty to European whites for native citizenship, although a significant minority advocate deportation.)

It’s no secret that the Trump proudly linked his candidacy to an image of business success rooted in his popular The Art of the Deal, a ghostwritten million-copy 1987 best-selling memoir which introduced The Donald to many Americans, and makes his personal success central to his candidacy. Trump has cultivated an image where he is to be trusted for his alleged aptitude for leverage, litigation and lawsuits to cast himself as a national savior, and give rise to Hamilton’s historical worries that as “riches increase and accumulate in few hands, . . . the tendency of things will be to depart from the Republican standard“–and self-interest threaten the common national good.  The Donald openly seeks increase this inequality through a broad set of tax cuts on businesses and the wealthy, and even draws support from upper income brackets as much as the uneducated.  Winning trust in his ability to project alleged threats to a national economy and civil society, The Donald boasts of his ability to renegotiate national obligations, secure our national frontiers, in a campaign to restore an image of national respect that is more symbolic than real.  But his assurances to change a “system” which few know as well as he to be “rigged,” and “control” at a time of global disruption by forces identified with globalization–immigration; terrorism; decline of manufacturing industries–astound for their remapping of national interests.

Several cartoonists have tried to grapple with the distortions of which The Donald has out of apparent ignorance persuaded his constituents.  The global vision that The Donald promotes is uncannily akin to the picture that his speech patterns have led Yanko Tsvetkov to draft the following for his Atlas of Prejudice, in an attempt to capture the distorted globalism Trump incarnates–a world-view based in America, where South America exists only for pageants and Indonesia for bell-boys for hotels, and Europe flood with terrorists–and has sold as a perspective firmly rooted in the collective “interests” of the United States, lest it be “ripped off.”


How such a mental imaginary or world-view became entertained as a credential to lead a country, or even candidate oneself for President, could have traction save in a society more animated by Reality TV than actuality, has provoked several attempts to wrestle with an iconography and cartographic symbolism adequate to the global distortions it perpetuates, and the polarity between Islam and America it creates, giving short shrift to China or ex-Soviets, and magnifying the outsized presence of Mexico in a new mental imaginary defined by walls, threats, and deep global skepticism where defensiveness seems the only adequate response to globalization.




The hopes to capture Trump’s omphalocentric perspective which casts a mental imaginary of a dated white America of the late 1960s as the earth’s sacred navel, as if at the center of a world political order, has created no shortage of cartographical desperation in an attempt to grasp the perniciousness of its underlying distortions–and the world cast as a replica of the combover, similarly distorted through personal emotions from animosity to Obama to the Trump Corporation’s business ties.


lalotrumpmap1500-1.pngLalo Alcaraz


Yet the omphalos of Trump’s world based in America and its frontiers has provided a new image that joins his supporters.  Trump’s presidential bid may be fueled promises a restored sense of stability, but is rooted in his own enterprise, and his assertions to provide something of a bulwark against global change, restoring a narrative of American success in a time of increasing global uncertainty and change.  Although this narrative is hardly credible in itself, given the massive debt of his companies and his dependence on securing credit, despite little inherent basis for its trustworthiness, the campaign has grown with taunting false charges of national instability and unrest–a nation where immigrants are rapists;  growing terrorist threats; rising unemployment and trade debt; disenfranchised voters; mistrust.  So absent is a moral compass from that the geography of their appeal compels being mapped in more detail than has been–and mapped less by lines of demographic divisions than the illusory, given the whole-cloth fabrications on which they are based and the astounding absence of ethics of the world-image he creates and perpetuates.


1.  While Trump’s candidacy was long regarded with skepticism, despite the readiness to link Trump’s campaign to yet another tactic to improve his brand back in 2000–when he ran with the promise to provide universal healthcare, eliminate the debt, and create fair trade–his campaign’s popularity in 2016 seems to rest on his abilities to negotiate a better deal for Americans by downplaying the actual status quo.  For Trump’s widely broadcast financial “genius” has provided a crucial lynchpin for many to attach them to–with no immediate financial profit or gain for themselves, but by rhetorically wresting the country from straw-man targets of hate from Muslims to Mexicans identified as causes a “rigged system” that The Donald will dissolve with open animosity, as only he–the ultimate outsider–could perceive. While supporters antagonized crowed “Trump will take our country from you guys,” barely concealing its racism by the ugliest sort of proprietary patriotism, Trump has defined his own candidacy as an issue of national defense.”I am your voice,” intoned Trump at his travesty of a political convention this past summer, against any objection, as if affirming his bond to an invisible electorate, reminding them he had their interests at heart.

The voice is patriarchal, strong, male and gives the appearance of authority–as much as it is the voice of the disempowered.  “You” is less a direct address than a lightly coded cry of encouragement, designed to embrace constituents alienated from a pluralistic government and increasingly fearful and defensive of a minority-white country; if not violent or overthrowing government, it is the voice of a right-wing populist movement linked to personal ambition.  The astounding success with which The Donald has positioned himself against the news media, apart and outside of functioning government, and openly come to court both right-wing groups and the NRA for support suggest his popularity is dislodged from political traditions–and indeed less part of a strain in American politics of paranoia, than fomented to encourage his brand, with no ethical compass at all.  Have we been all to easily ready to conflate political positions with the success of a brand that Trump’s politics are less able to be defined?  If Trump’s promise to be “The Voice” is not disenfranchisement, it is a “notion of the nation” protecting privilege.

If Trump’s promise is to protect white privilege in an increasingly pluralistic society, based on an expansion of his individual success and individual privilege, it rests on belittling the role of women in public politics.  While not presented as overthrowing a democratic government, Trump’s appeal reflects a refusal to cede space to pluralism and to any other voice but his own–in ways that lead some women to welcome his candidacy as that of a “real man” tied to his a traditional image of individual success, rather than the promotion of the public good.  Even in the surprising margins of victory Trump won in the 2016 US Primary Election, largely among male voters, older voters, and largely among white voters, Trump’s claims that “the people who were offended were the one’s we wanted to offend” of mid-May suggest a conscious tactic of encouraging offense.  In ways not clearly linked to Trump’s own invention, or to any proposals he has advanced, Trump summons deep anger felt against Obama, against immigration, against national demographics, and against a shifting world picture that Trump has been able to incarnate, and which the apparent accuracy of infographics or demographics cannot alone represent–and which Trump’s energetic recourse to hyperbolic address encourages as it seeks openly to distort.

Despite the success of Trump’s persuasion of audiences that he has joined the political arena to ensure powerful interests won’t taking advantage of “the system,” the assurances he makes of having knowledge of “the system” see more the product of Reality TV than familiarity with government, and his success at channeling discontent at government is truly terrifying.  The untrammeled ambition of Trump, if not the result of political manipulation, has long seemed unencumbered by a clear geography of red states vs. blue states, but to draw on a an emotional strength bursting through any filters or media, and almost glorying in the fraudulence of claims to restore law, order and prosperity to the nation. When Trump intoned “I am your voice” in ominous tones at the Republican Convention, as if Voldemort summoning the power of his faithful, railing against the status quo, suturing himself to the interest of a right-thinking contingent, previously conjured as the “Silent Majority,” in a phrase of Nixonian lineage, or a “forgotten America,” “ignored, neglected and abandoned,” as if summoning an imagined constituency, painting a portrait of an America besieged by murderers, rapists, and a government without its own interests at heart, trying to make himself more present to an electorate by summoning all his rage.  How did the over-abundant use of truthful hyperbole in the Lexicon of The Donald come to be such an effective means of address?

If The Donald performs a range of emotion that gives supporters apparent access to his person, it is no secret that Angry Trump is the greatest secret of his current appeal as a candidate–uncanny channeling of a vague sense of emotional distress and a desire to link themselves to the story of personal economic success as a developer that he cultivated so widely on Reality TV,  after using television to entertain a presidential candidacy  back in 1980, claiming any candidacy would be organized only to win in 1988, and then in 2000 making a pitch for being the Reform party candidate, by filling in the shoes of Ross Perot.  Trump aspires to a similar sort of Perot-like candor, powered by a slogan to “Make America Great Again” and to Restore Authority, but fueled by toxic and angry attacks of openly racist and sexist tenor.  These are the fairly limited range of emotions that make The Donald appeal, but that also make his outsized presence seem to strip the body politic.

Trump Reaction Pack


2.  Assaults of ambition remain so central to Trump’s appeal in the 2016 election that they openly endanger the nation–and reveal the muddy nature of his notion of democracy that let his Presidential candidacy preoccupy much of the national psyche–as the torturous hate-filled memes he regularly releases on Twitter threaten to infect it.  As well as present a picture of a candidate dangerously without filters, who reflects some of the demagogic excess that the Framers of the US Constitution feared, Trump entered the anger at the status quo to suggest a new model of leadership that appealed to much of the country.

Not only are the vast majority of The Donald’s public statements inaccurate–false or inaccurate statements was rated at 70 percent by Politifact, which counted nearly twenty percent of his public claims to be outright lies–but his personal tweets tied to his Samsung Android use, rather than the campaign operatives who tweet from his account, according to a recent data analysis by David Robinson, a preponderance of emotionally charged words–and you know them:  “crazy,” “dumb,” “weak,” related to anger and disgust–and in deed 40-80% more “negative sentiments” that channel feelings of resentment.  For Trump has cultivated those suffering from what George Saunders so aptly calls“usurpation anxiety syndrome”–a feeling of being slighted by other groups who “the system” places at an advantage, feel vulnerable, work too hard for too little, sense little actual economic improvement and yearn for the “economic renewal” Trump promises and which they fear they will not see.  For Trump is the ultimate salesman, pitching prosperity linked to a radical evisceration of the historical notion of the nation’s public good.



Deep emotional appeals have helped Candidate Trump sustain his appeal and trust across much of the nation–at least until Trump’s current “slump” reflect The Donald’s decline in popularity after both parties’ nominating conventions.  While the shift may reflect the shifting media context and the scrutiny of Trump’s reaction and campaigns, it also reflects the shifting geography of a national contest, in which the insults and animosities that Trump directs toward opponents is no longer center stage–and the authority with which he has been able to direct debate has been somewhat surprisingly and dramatically curtailed, and his patriotism has come under question.  Only as the image of Trump as the outsider is challenged, and his own striving for credibility and lack of any convictions grasped, is he bizarre drama of candidate Trump able to be mapped as the appeal of his manipulation of personal ambition, removed from any clear sense of how globalization has hurt the US economy, providing a false story of easy fixes on structural economic decline able to be changed by “the negotiation of great trade deals” as inaccurate as his sense of how globalization poses challenges for American security.

Yet a false sense of “globalization” forms an easy popular target, even though Trump’s sense of macroeconomics is widely questioned, despite his boasts for “economic renewal” and baseless claims to “restore order” that curry a panic which leads so many to run to him, promising to help a “forgotten America” stripped of its voice and its representation.  “Intellectually and emotionally weakened by years of steadily degraded public discourse,” George Saunders has recently written, the United States has entered an era in which Republican unity is indeed sacrificed, and “we are now two separate ideological countries, LeftLand and RightLand“–consuming different new sources, reasoning differently, engaged in different national myths and images of the national good.  This division of the country provides an optic to receive very different and competing knowledge of global change.  For much of RightLand, Trump’s case for running the nation like a business–as the many corporations of which he serves with the title of “President”, and his promise to restore economic stability by better deals esonates for many, especially those remote from global change, and deeply skeptical of political elites who they see themselves as forgotten by a political class.  This central fear has been a large source from which Trump has generated assent of many angry white men across the country, and not only them–as if he presents them, in a deeply Melvillian sense, to steer the ship of state in a time of fears of global change, even if some may detect more than a whiff of Ahab in his self-proclaimed leadership of a ship of state, sailing in to the night.


3.  Trump’s success as a candidate has derived from wresting fears from supporters and broadcast their prejudices to a national level, through the medium of Twitter, massive rallies, and heated rhetoric, creating a distillation of toxic political discourse that has almost infected the national psyche.  As much as follow a clear geography of red states vs. blue states, however, Trump’s followers are those quickest to follow him down the rabbit hole that he incarnates their interests with Trump’s claim that “I am your voice.”

The “voice” that Trump offers promises a needed sense of identity when one is challenged, where American power more problematic and uncertain, and indeed when a narrative of American success–and this is what Trump repeatedly promises to his audiences at arenas–seems far away.  The assertion of being “your voice” echo fascist dictators, with its magnification of a cult of leadership and projection of authoritarian personality.  But the informational disconnect on which Trumpism depends and which it generates it has yet to be fully mapped, or cartographically appreciated.  For the very notion that we are divided into two lands especially resonates given the striking continuity of the current “red states” in which Trump is popular–regions often of few electoral votes, more removed from the mainstream sources of news, and unsure of their identities.  They are also, not surprisingly, both more removed from globalization and more in need of spinning a new narrative about globalization, and how it has hurt them and their futures.


Cartogram--Trump's Chances August 11.pngFiveThirtyEight Forecast, August 2016


Increasingly, we may thank the electoral system of proportional representation for shrinking the voice of the pro-Trump states.  Yet how did this absurd division of political allegiances, and conflation of personal interest and the political, come to be?

If the vast majority of states without economic growth subscribe to Republican gospel that corporations foster economic growth, The Donald has proposed policies are most likely to provoke massive debt–and threaten to disrupt the political process so deeply do they dramatically distort the nation through the very lens of individual enterprise and personal ambition–but sound good to many.  Oddly, the appeal of Trumpism lies in the very regions that are far from the commercial and domestic properties The Donald owns, even if it is focussed in tonier areas of New York.



Trump's Properties


Yet Trump has converted his skill at deal-making, litigation, developing, refinancing, borrowing, and bluster to a legend of personal financial success, security, and empowerment many Americans desire –even after filing for bankruptcy four times over three decades and leaving a trail of deals gone sour in his wake.  He has fashioned a story especially appealing to those feeling disempowered, largely independent from content, and oddly unhinged from evidence or actuality. “I AM YOUR VOICE”–he now insists with increasingly unfounded conviction, seeking to channel the resentment and aggression he has fomented over the past year, and now even asking for election observers to watch for voting fraud, although political parties cannot engage in such monitor of voting practices, as if speaking for a forgotten America “ignored, neglected and abandoned” by a government not willing to protect its citizens in an adequate fashion.  Such charges are removed from an increasing paralysis of government that the Republicans have encouraged.


Reuters:Brendan McDermid.jpgBrendan McDermid/Reuters


Indeed, in a nation that is deluged by news about ISIS, a disorienting assault GDELT has so nicely mapped across much of 2015, Trump provides a ballast against the tides of globalization that the fear of ISIS has brought.

Is it a coincidence that he has repeatedly perpetuated and preferred the aggressive half-truth that “ISIS was not even on the map” until Hillary Clinton was serving as Secretary of State within Barack Obama’s Presidency, a charge that backfired in serious ways in the summer of 2016?  The spread of news coverage of ISIS over the past year provided an increasingly disorienting map of the challenges to American leadership, and was broadcast worldwide.



news coverage of ISIS 2015.png



The density of this disorientation in the United States was repeated not only in the traditional centers of “news” but across the nation, as fears of terrorist strikes grew throughout the country in ways that demand to be mapped over a broader time.



News density for ISIS in US.png


The disorienting nature with which The Donald has claimed to stabilize these fears have been combined with promises for individual economic success.


4.  As much as using his authoritarianism to create an openly fascist relation to the state, The Donald has staged a persona that has responded to growing national fears of immigration, terrorism, an appearance of declining jobs in manufacturing–and directed increased anger against the status quo.   While offering no clear plans or programs, Trump insists that the current government has forgetten moving the nation, and argues that he will bring “safety, prosperity and peace” by removing the nation from alliances, constitutional law and economic ties, echoing fascist principles in championing law and order and a restoration of national unity in the face of an apparent crisis of illegality embodied in immigration, terrorism, and urban crime and violence, and discrediting the ability of the current government’s ability to respond to it, as well as its worthiness to lead–and plagued by government “lies.” Trump’s call for radical change has appealed to a broad spectrum of Americans, as has his claim to a “forgotten America” that “I am your voice.”  Yet while claiming that most other politicians put their interests before the “national good,” Trump’s agenda places his ambitions and his desire for affirmation above all else.  How could it be that so few in America can see that the Emperor has no clothes?

While echoing fascism in this cult of personality, the authority of the state has almost withered away in place of ominous pronouncements that “safety will be restored” and violence come to an end, conjuring an appealing image of individual security removed from actual geography, but deeply appealing to many who appreciate the white, male authority figure he offers as someone out of politics and removed from a discredited political class–and from government.  In ways that allow a near-absence of clarity on actual plans or policies as a politician, Trump has asserted his public identity in his preferred media of Twitter, Reality TV, and staged news conferences.  As David Axelrod described Trump as the  ‘Anti-Obama’ in a New York Times op-ed, Trump’s cultivation of fear, impulsiveness, self-content and polarization able to use hostility to Obama to nourish his own campaign, independently of any substance.  This can explain the staying power and geography of Trump’s appeal–and the basis of that appeal in emotions, rather than intellect or reason.


Francisco_José_de_Goya_y_Lucientes_-_The_sleep_of_reason_produces_monsters_(No._43),_from_Los_Caprichos_-_Google_Art_Project.jpgFrancisco Goya, The Sleep of Reason


The best French fan of America since Alexis de Tocqueville, Jean Baudrillard, found the nation distinguished by an abundance of simulacra several decades ago.  And over the past several decades, Donald Trump provides and even self-consciously embodies a simulacrum of leadership, and a simulacrum of wealth–one that is defined on Reality TV rather than evident in income tax returns.  But since first entertaining presidential candidacy  on talk shows–then hardly a venue for such announcements–back in 1980, before confiding to Oprah Winfrey that any candidacy would be organized only to win in 1988, and in 2000 making a pitch for being the Reform party candidate for Presidency on another television show, using mass mediums to make a claim for his populist candidacy that glories in his self-aggrandizement on television.  While voicing familiar themes of being “ripped off” by other nations, plagued by unfair trade practices and trading partners, and promising to restore an order degraded by misguided financial policies.

Trump’s empty assurances to restore jobs finds a larger support in an era when antagonistic speech has degraded political discourse considerably, and The Donald increasingly appears more trusted than political figures.  Much of misinformed America buys his promises, however, and his geography of an America beset by poor leadership suddenly resonates with many–even if it is hard to believe that his credibility continues among the faithful who cheer him on.  For in rants, speeches, and tweets over the last year, Trump has conveyed fortitude in the face of the decline, pedaling a feel-good gospel of success, positive thinking, and perseverance in the face of disaster–as if in a self-help gospel that updated the sermons of Norman Vincent Peale to which his father took the family at New York City’s Marble Collegiate Church in a gospel of personal empowerment, nourished by Jesuit-like skills of visualizing individual success:  for Trump nourishes audiences by a gospel destined to empower the disempowered, although Trump’s insistent return to resentment of American multiculturalism and global displacement of a domestic economy has begun to be seen as as dangerous as it is as he pivots to take his message to the national election.

Yet the longstanding success of mobilizing resentment of many in the working class who accept his odd narrative of the economic dangers of globalism and globalization tapped a current of isolationism in particularly dangerous ways, as Trump’s avatar came to stand for an image of self-empowerment in a globalized world and economy where the United States no longer stands at its pre-Copernican center.  David Brooks has aptly likened the appeal of The Donald’s ability to litigate, make deals, solve problems and renegotiate to the end of the traditional GOP platform and policies, as akin to a Kuhnian crisis in party politics that cast aside the old language, values, and politics as it does the familiar GOP world-view–and made the quite outmoded language of The Donald its center.


gettyimages-578549460_custom-3899a7fbe4e7b6e762a910ed73ef1aab15ac3ac7-s1200-c85.jpgJohn Moore/Getty Images


The success with which The Donald has played on the emotions of the electorate in performing authority is perhaps the most difficult perspective to map effectively, and presses the boundaries of data visualizations and statistics.  Indeed, the division between deep red states and blue states is not only economic in nature.  For Trumpism is not only ideological in its construction, but a break from politics as usual and a performance of authority.  Yet he may minimize the success with which Trump performs a leader for America, rather than holding anything like a political platform or set of policies.  Trump’s repetitive evocation of a “great leader” seems more neo-fascist than rooted in the Republican party in celebrating The Donald’s alleged skills as tools to bolster American power.  And the Kuhnian crisis in a narrative of American superiority or leadership extends far beyond the Republican party.

While Trump may have gained the Republican party’s nomination because of his accumulation of wealth, fueled by a mean-spirited campaign that has celebrated his own accumulation of capital as a political logic departing from the very Republican very “notion of a nation” Hamilton strove to preserve and secure.  Not only did Trump revise longstanding policies of the Republican party by suggesting massive investments in a decaying infrastructure that Republicans had long opposed–but mirrored President Obama’s Recovery Act and Stimulus Bill of 2009–but replaced Republican government with a mandate to renegotiate, litigate and refinance to protect national interests on the model of an individual corporation, removed from a global economy or society of laws–and allowed himself to run as an anti-government candidate and champion of corporate interests, guided by the advancement of his personal interests for recognition as a national savior than a political agenda.  For  Trump’s performance of a political identity is itself only a very canny reflection of the depth of divisions in the nation, playing interests off against one another repeatedly, and holding a mirror that magnifies the extent of its fears to manufacture further magnify political divides–by repeatedly attacking alleged outsiders from refugees to immigrants to national minorities.


5.  What drives the appeal of his performance, if not anger at the sense of disconnect that sections of the nation feel, which Trump is so effectively able to magnify?  Trump’s campaign suggests a particularly dangerous attack on political discourse,  moving from the personal attacks and open misogyny so familiar from Reality TV to a campaign that addresses a caricature of a nation as much as a representational democracy, as he present his own purported enterprise and efficiency in a cult of personality whose appeal that undermines a two-party system.  Deeply paranoid fears of an unexpected victory by Trump looms in current electoral projections of the eventuality of a 269-269 electoral tie between the candidates:  the projection of such a geographical division of the country mirrors the fracturing by a swath of continuous red in Presidential elections of 2000 and 2004, although the division is no longer rooted in party politics.  Trump has not made any inroads that expand the traditional Republican map–despite his appeal in regions where manufacturing once held sway.  But even Trump’s apparent failure to ‘broaden’ the swath of red in the electoral map belies the surprisingly stunning appeal across the electorate and a shift in political culture toward accentuating differences in the nation out of existing opposition to government.

For Trump’s agenda makes less sense in understanding his appeal than the differences he encourages and corrosive sense of individual interests he reflects and the newfound need for self-protection he is so adept at fostering.  This post investigates how the divisions in civil society that Trump magnifies are particularly effective in specific regions of the country and segments of American society, and emphasizes the emotional as much as ideological registers with which his divisive rhetoric of racial resentment and anti-immigrant vitriol is especially effective.


Fear of 269-69

Nate Cone/Toni Monkovic (Upshot/NY Times) July 28, 2016


Rather than reveal continuity in earlier elections, Trump has reinforced deeply-seated skepticism of public trust threatens that open deep fault lines between people’s conception of their relation to government which mirrors the relation of the nation to the world in an age of global threats–and ended to the impinging of an outside world our reality.  To an extent, it mirrors a widespread violent rejection of much news media, going beyond skepticism, and Trump’s successful generation of alternate sources of media attention.  As much as we are shocked by the vitriol of The Donald’s sustained attacks against members of society and for political opponents from Ted Cruz to Hillary Clinton, the premise of Trumpism is that no one but The Donald could solve the nation’s imagined woes–Trump seeks to assuage worries by radically rewriting and remapping the government’s relation to the world.


6.  The deeply distorted spatial imaginary he has assiduously cultivated on social media and at rallies has in fact insulated protected his candidacy well, suggesting an ability of disengaging from global problems, and magnifying to individual interests alone.  The unexpected geography of the political appeal of The Donald may in part be understood in the currency that the extreme isolationism of Trump’s America First doctrine, dramatically cutting the United States off from a globalized world.   While the specter of such a united swath of Red States recurs, it seems rooted in a readiness to rebuke globalism, and the role of the United States in the world, and accept the role Trump proclaims as creating a new place for America in the world, and new relation of nation to the longstanding War on Terror that the Republican predecessors began, creating a geography of fear whose over-saturation with media exposure may have been especially opportune for his candidacy in a “Post-Catatonic” Age, unresponsive to economic uncertainty and rejecting News media.  The atmosphere of part of the nation has prepared fro the 2016 campaign for President as extending the vitriol of  Reality TV, in which the “truthful hyperbole” Trump championed in The Art of the Deal redefine the ethics and moral compass of national politics.

Donald Trump once promoted the particularadvantages of truthful hyperbole  as a business  and strategy, his success lies in the reception of similarly wild exaggerations to the political discourse.  The role of “real leadership” is for The Donald to prevent our nation from continuing “being ripped off” and “put the U.S. back into business” so it is no longer a “laughing stock.”  The image of a laughing stock nation is particularly important to his constituents, who see their own economic precarity as being so neglected by the current government, are eager to ally themselves with his image of personal power, however megalomaniacal it is, and are ready to vent by directing anger at the status quo.


Fear of 269-69.pngNate Cone/Toni Monkovic (Upshot/NY Times) July 28, 2016


But who is being ripped off?  Trump’s championing of his skills of government runs against the very disinterestedness Hamilton advocated to curb the excesses of personal interests Trump incarnates.  Trump has been accepted by  a nation unsettled by terrorist attacks and fearful of plurality, the authoritarian characteristics Trump incarnates seem not only to supersede the GOP, offering “echoes of fascism,” as Robert O. Paxton argues, by evoking powerful fears of national decline, inviting attacks on foreigners and others, and finding deep dangers to public society among powerless immigrants to refugees.  Such uncannily selective rehabilitation of the anti-modern fascist movements have won a trust in his person in ways that still demand to be better mapped in modern American society.

The appeal of “Trumpism” seems to map an ongoing decline in American political discourse, dividing the population along fears, as much as creating consensus or common ground, and demonizing immigrants, criminals, and refugees as objects of fear in despicably interested ways whose effect we’ve only begun to appreciate and take stock of:   in drawing energy and confidence from his attacks on such outsiders become performances of an imagined national community, even if his rhetoric borders more on the opportunistic–if in ways often almost more opportunistic than incoherent.  As a reformed academic, drawn to biases and omissions of distilling data in cartographic form in data visualizations, I can’t help but feel sympathy for the credo of Historians Against Trump that “it is all of our jobs to fill the voids exploited by the Trump campaign,” and explore the steep dangers of Trump’s false populism and of Trumpism less by academic expertise or training than maps.  The need to fill the voids of news and social media about how The Donald has so successfully adopted themes from the American and European past to target ostensible dangers to society–from immigrants to women–in ways that have left his candidacy such a deep preoccupation of the collective consciousness.

At a time of uncertainty as to what are American “interests,” Trump’s authoritarianism, rooted less in party positions, ideology or conservative doctrine than a cult of personality that claims to divine national interests.  Although Trump’s appeal has been located among white voters without college degrees, the appeal of Trump’s potent script demands to be exposed not only by “cool, tempered analysis,” as some have argued, but  contextualizing precedents of the range of invectives Trump liberally launches against opponents and government of national decline—although the rhetoric of Trump’s academic antagonists have not won opprobrium of Stanley Fish, Trump’s own rhetoric mirrors the “unreal, vast, unbounded deep/Of horrible confusion” of John Milton’s Satan, distorting both the dangers faced by the Nation and the sole voice of objectivity by which Trump presents himself.   If Trump’s language echoes how Milton described the disorder that Satan sowed in its distortion of truth, Fish might also find that The Donald echoes Macbeth in having “no spur to prick the sides of my intent” save o’erleaping ambition.  In an odd echo of the impulsive ambition to win Scotland’s crown, Trump’s ambition to be President leaps to the center of media attention, rebuking the need for qualifications for political office and indeed championing his lack of political experience, o’erleaping the category of the political and o’erleaping bounds of decorum.  As Shakespeare created a new model of kingship for James I in the staging of Macbeth, Trump’s overweening ambitions promises a new model for Presidential character—if his performance, far from Shakespearean, is more akin to Philip K. Dick’s red-haired clown.


7.  The appeal of Trump’s distortions demand to be mapped without a focus on electoral votes.  For Trump’s identification of a series of ever-proliferating dangers for Americans and American workers are steeped in a wildly anachronistic sense of Making America First almost unhinged from reality.  From where do they draw their appeal?  An answer may lie in their remove from actuality.  When Trump advocates increasing protectionist values against free trade, he ostensibly champions what he argues imitate precepts for protectionism of trade and markets in  Hamiltonian’s 1790 Report on Manufacturesyet whereas Hamilton advocated to grow a fledgling American economy on a global scale, Trump’s positions itself disorients audiences from growing global interdependency in a globalized market.

They mask the actual imbalances in an imagined mapping of actual imbalances of United States’ global trade–


Map US Trade Deficit.pngHow (deficits mapped in red; surpluses mapped in green)


–and present the United States as able to unilaterally extract itself from global trade and the movement of goods across borders, much as Trump’s plan to build a “beautiful wall” along the US-Mexico border to reduce illegal immigrant and enforce the deportation of eleven million




and masks the intimate ties between the two countries in the border region, by pretending a clear line can indeed be drawn, to conceal actual trade imbalances d in a show of force.




8.  The skill of Trumpism in actually distorting the map in an age when many cannot accept globalism suggest its deep deceptiveness as a promise that “America” can be remapped apart from the world, if not a cartographical fantasy.  Trump’s demand for steep tariffs and a platform of protectionism,and economic renewal, which extends to preventing American companies from making any products overseas.  Indeed, the very nationalist protectionism Trump trumpets, promoting tariffs, lowering corporate taxes, attacks on currency manipulation, or expelling foreign workers all claim to Make America Great Again–but run sharply against the current of a globalized economy so clearly as to seem anachronistic as a reference for current economic policy.

All might indeed provoke a global economic panic by increasing the nation’s debt to astronomical heights while offering no plan to increase manufacturing in ways most likely to leave “Alexander Hamilton rolling in his grave”–but that echoes his own proud championing of himself as the “King of Debt,” coronated by four bankruptcy filings.  And even while stoking fears of a growing national debt and trade imbalances, he has floated the financial scheme of convincing holders of US Treasury bills to accept reduced payments, rather than paying full face value on US debts–in effect, reducing debt by buying it back in order to refinance  lesser rates of return, in effect imitating Trump’s famous manipulation of bankruptcy laws but in ways that might very well reduce global trust in US Treasury bills and encourage foreign investors en masse to direct their funds elsewhere and further reduce the United States’ credit rating with huge consequences for global financial markets.  Such absence of any familiarity with America’s place in a globalized market is typical of Trump’s campaign and its pursuit of individual interest.  As constructing a wall on the US-Mexican border, refusing asylum to refugees, or the isolationist strand in his America First policy that he perversely adopts in an age of global interdependence.  Only by asking the appeal of this outdated spatial imaginary, indeed, can the appeal of Trumpism be appreciated through the license it offers to believe the United States at the center of a global and regional map–if not as wronged by the conspiracies of “globalism” that are present, for The Donald, in areas as diverse as global warming, climate change, the refugee crisis, NATO, or international accords.

The starkest opposition Trump has targeted out of fear of lost white, male power is hard to define, but seems inescapably to be incarnated in the false display of masculinity of Trump’s full head of hair. For Trump advocates a quite outdated notion of the nation state  largely designed to appeal to the fears of white men.  Indeed, his recent selection of the running mate of The Donald, Governor Michael Pence, known for his restriction of abortion rights and banning of abortions save those endangering of the mother’s health, signals the increased targeting of women in Trump’s campaign.  He approved a bill describing abortion as a “surgical procedure” related to public health, leading Elizabeth Warren to tweet, “OF COURSE @realDonaldTrump — a guy who calls women fat pigs & bimbos — picked a VP who is famous for trying to control women’s bodies!”  And in the coming war against selecting a woman to occupy the nation’s highest office, Pence’s commitment to curtailing abortion rights, dramatically restricting access to clinics and mandating funerals for the unborn, mandating parental consent, and refusing abortions after diagnoses of Down’s Syndrome–prompting Indiana women to form  “Periods for Pence” to mock Pence’s infringement on personal privacy by providing the governor’s office with  updates on individual menstrual cycles.  Is Governor Pence’s public policy not in keeping with Trump’s mandate to prevent Hillary Clinton from holding the nation’s highest office, and keeping women out of a public sphere?  After all, Pence famously introduced the disastrous bill HEA 1337 with a public boast “I sign this legislation with a prayer that God would continue to bless these precious children, mothers and families,” compelling women electing to abort announce their intent and motivations for electing to abort in openly unconstitutional violations of freedom of choice and rights to privacy.

The particular blend of civic corrosiveness by which Trump has pursued his campaign for the chief executive by equating his dubious business skills and success to Make the Nation Great Again cuts against the grain of national collectives.  The absence of any restraint on the image of leadership he perpetuates, most lightly masking or concealing unrestrained personal ambition.  Indeed, the advantages of “truthful hyperbole” reveal the very disregard for truth to advance one’s own personal agenda and private interests that has become so central to Trump’s campaign, and have lent it particular appeal as more honest, forthright, and sincere.  Yet the elasticity Trump has attributed to the truth, and indeed to claims for his business and policies, while claiming their greater honesty and effectiveness than government policy, still seems in need of being unpacked and mapped.


9.  In so baldly and boastfully proclaiming his abilities to lead the nation as an extension of enterprise, by equating negotiating skills and ambitions, as if mistaking his past as a real estate executive as a qualification for the executive branch of government, Trump seems more inspired Norman Vincent Peale’s gospel in  The Power of Positive Thinking, having absorbed his sermons weekly in childhood, more than Alexander Hamilton’s doctrine of protecting manufactures.  Indeed, Norman Vincent Peale’s robustly optimistic injunctions for individual success–“Formulate and stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding.  Hold this picture tenaciously.  Never permit it to fade.“–frame Trump’s qualified optimism that event though “there’s something going on, and it’s bad” he would be able to restore, cut crime, “put the country back on track” and end an era of being ripped off by everybody.”  Rather than look to Washington for answers, Trump asks we look to him to Make America Great Again and restore American interests through an art of deal-making–branding his own candidacy by promises to restore American interests and values far more akin to Peale’s preaching to “Have faith in your abilities.”  The shiny allure of branding personal success as a mission to “take back America” openly intertwining personal and economic success in the assurance to be “the greatest jobs President God ever created,” eliding a sacred, economic, personal, and political narratives of personal redemptive transformation by economic rebirth.


Trump Tower NYC


For from that fateful moment when The Donald so smugly descended the escalator of Trump Tower, as Moses from the Burning Bush, to deliver Presidential announcement was nothing less than a pronouncement of his intention to renew American democracy in one fell swoop, and purge the country of foreign workers, Mexican criminals and appear as a savior to the nation “in serious trouble” as it was “no longer respected by anyone” and a “laughing stock [sic] all over the world,” presenting himself as an evangelist bearing a new gospel of economic advancement to a country in desperate need.






Trump is hard to imagine as a motivational speaker, given his regular discussion of the dire state of the nation besieged by economic downturn, unregulated Mexican cross-border immigration, terrorism, and the danger of refugees.  But Peale’s assurances for success are reflected in Trump’s image of his power to remake the nation, if this vision appears mediated by Reality TV and is often foreign to the existing political process.  For the map of the Nation he claims able to Make Great Again is based on pitting segments of the nation against imagined dangers–and, indeed, foregrounds a mythical notion of the nation-state as the true foundation of happiness and harmony in hopelessly outdated and obsolete in a globalized society–by placing an image of economic well-being in the minds of his audiences that he invites them to trust him to create and not allow to fade from their minds.

Is this evocation of a national imaginary designed to appeal to a distinct demographic, less clearly engaged in or benefitting from the free trade agreements globalization implies?  The prominence of a dated concept of the nation-state evokes the mental imaginary that The Donald claims to defend, and is a dated “state” mostly composed of white men–to whose interests he may have directed his platform by evoking specters of illegal immigration, racial and ethnic divisions, foreign workers, or bad trade deals that collectively substantiate deep-seated fears of being “ripped off.”  For Trump is most striking as a candidate not because he changes positions, relentlessly promotes his alleged business skills and acumen as if they were innate, or the low level of discourse at which he attacks opponents as “sad,” “pathetic,” “a loser” or just “crooked,” or his political promises and generalities, but rather the shameless persistence of basing his appeal less on political consensus than exposing and intensifying political fault-lines.  Instead of empathizing with individual interests or plights, Trump has boasted of his abilities to stay change and restore an imagined past, as if doing so were a basis to protect what are perceived as the slighted social and cultural privileges of a nation tied to the interests of disgruntled and disaffected, channeling promises to stand up for their interests before an economy that seems less connected to them.

In evoking anxieties of immigration, economic uncertainty, and promising to restore a past model of privilege, Trump channels grievances and passions of those who feel passed by globalization, in ways that are embodied in the vicarious identification of much of the nation with his own personal claims for grandiosity.  As much as having an economic appeal, or reflecting divides in education or prospects of work, Trump’s appeal is relentlessly cultural–and directed against imagined dangers of globalization, as much as a coherent political agenda.  Indeed, so sharply does Trump tilt against globalization, and a society where goods, money, and persons cross borders, that his recuperation of an outdated America First policy has dominated the American Psyche in increasingly preoccupying ways.







10.  In an age of increased availability of data, the level of deceit that Trump is able to perpetuate has little equal.  And when we look to data visualizations in the hopes to better map the spread of The Donald’s appeal but are only able to grasp with difficulty the extent of that appeal by donations, Facebook likes, Google searches, minority presence, or white-minority youth–if the below visualization also included businesses offering spray tans, bankruptcies per coati, or percentages of folks who brag on social media and were married three time, one can also track one’s neighbors at  Yet the prevalence of using data visualizations as if they were predictive metrics of electoral combinations and likelihoods in both news media and in individual blogs may conceal the deeply cultural basis of Trump’s appeal.  For as Norman Vincent Peale, Trump appeals to many Americans who desire injunctions to confidence, personal betterment and success, rather than out of concern for the betterment of the nation–and provide a surrogate for the very sort of self-betterment that Trump seems for many to symbolize and promise.


trump-map1-1.jpgRyan Nickum/Estately (Feb. 8, 2016)


In an age of the harvesting of increased information about voting patterns, demographics have emerged as a new key to explain the division of the nation, not only between red and blue states, but post-blue-v.-red-divide, in terms of the phenomenon of The Donald.  And so, metrics of minority representation, economic advantages, out-of-work, and levels of education completed all too often provide the primary lenses by which to process the spread of Trumpism across the nation, as if data visualizations offer sufficient or effective mirrors to explain fault-lines disequilibria that caused The Donald’s broad appeal, and the effective refutation of multicultural America that it presumes.





Trump Likes (24%) v Clinton (9%)

Intensity of Facebook “Likes” of Donald Trump (24%) and Hillary Clinton (9%) (April 18, 2016)


In just over a year, Trump, after flirting with a Presidential candidacy with the Reform Party in 2012, when he forwent a Presidential campaign in favor of renewing another season of Celebrity Apprentice with NBCTV, claiming unreadiness to leave “the private sector” despite “the strong conviction that if I were to run, I would be able to win the primary and ultimately, the general election.”  Trump opted rather to continue his contract with NBC, rising like the repressed as much as a phoenix from the ashes of failed schemes of property development, has pursued the Republican nomination with assiduity by the extension of the authoritative persona he developed over some thirteen years on his Reality TV shows.  The conventional wisdom of Republican operative Nicolle Wallace that “Our voters, in decisive numbers, picked a guy who embarrasses us” fails to capture the uncomfortable truth that The Donald was not picked by anyone’s voters, but is still transitioning from Reality TV to the GOP, and is not likely to consider himself as chosen by any one party’s voters or indebted to them.

Trump has refashioned himself as an authoritarian image of a President with single-minded ambition that transcends party.  In ways that disregards and transcends civil rights, legal precedents, and markets the ambitions of his Presidential candidacy by disregarding legal precedent or the experience of any public officials save himself–and  techniques of baiting his opponents and cultivating audiences in Reality TV, more than GOP politics.  For The Donald’s campaign seems to sanction selfishness by looking less at the economy or foreign policy than protecting what they feel are their interests, and focus on cultivating a following who admire his business skills in ways that evacuate the political arena.  The apparent egocentrism of Trump’s candidacy led it to be long dismissed, as his previous runs with the Reform Party in 2000, when The America We Deserve appeared in American bookstores on January 1, and flirtation of 1987 with office.  Trump’s image as an executive was remapped on the country, however, through the and the genre of Reality TV–have provided the lens for national acceptance of The Donald.  Trump’s prominence on television, at rallies, and in the press conferences regularly held at Trump Tower during the election mirrors rolled out a candidate not at all far from the very authority and emotional intensity of a persona Trump cultivated on The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice–and perhaps more comforting than any discussion of politics.  For Donald Trump has started to tend to speak for the nation that he understands as a business deal, and measures as a basis to find a reflection of his own popularity–and runs as a culmination of his desire to remain at the center of attention.  Even if Trump’s payment of taxes may be less of an evident issue than it has been made, Trump’s cult of personality has transferred Presidential politics outside of political discourse, and returned it to a level of self-interest and vaulting ambition–as his constituents celebrate his own ambition as if it were a personal enterprise, rather than an office of state.

In ways, the Trump campaign is the epitome of a Facebook candidacy, rooted in popularity and “liking”, and adulation of The Donald as an oracular voice of truth, as much anything like we have seen from political actors.  In many ways, Trump remains the Facebook President, “liked” more universally on the social media platform than his opponent, Hillary Clinton, save in metro areas–in a startling early map–albeit self-generated–of the extent of Trump’s electoral popularity–and the deep danger of a Trump candidacy to the representational system as a “candidate” who has placed himself outside politics.


Trump Likes (24%) v Clinton (9%).png

The Facebook Presidential Primary:  share of “likes” received by Donald Trump (24%) and Hillary Clinton (9%) (April 18, 2016)


Despite the fact that Presidential politics have little to do with the odd agency of “liking” and that the passive agency of “liking” is far removed from actual advocacy, and that only just over half, or 58 percent, of American adults actually use Facebook, and based on a relatively young, low-income and female demographic, the map of Facebook likes mirrors false sense of individual agency that the spread of Trumpism has encouraged and released.  The isolated focus of such ‘likes’ of Hillary Clinton in dense, urban areas–among them, Washington DC; Los Angeles; New York City; San Francisco; San Antonio; Chicago; Detroit; Madison; New Orleans–mirrors an electorate far more uncertain about immigration outside urban areas.  While not predictive of votes, the image is a striking one of the impulsive attraction toward the Donald as a way of “speaking out” and taking action among a large geography of Americans, running through the South and out to Pennsylvania and western New York, and through much of the northwest and west, in rejection of government policies.

But who are the Trumpists and where is the appeal of Trumpism?  Perhaps the most compelling misconstrual of the spread of support for his campaign is the notion that his backing consists of populists who didn’t complete high-school education, let alone hold advanced degrees–and define themselves as “Americans.”  If the characterization is filled with some condescension, it offers little explanation of the geography of the appeal of his model of authority, laced with anti-intellectualism and opposition to a political class.  For although Trump’s campaign is, despite all of its claims to populism, in fact increasingly bankrolled and funded by supporters who are in fact considerably better off than most Americans, less apt to be upset with economic inequalities than by the sense that they have been not well-served by government that has not protected their interests and privileges–even though they possess larger incomes than the median incomes in most all states, and often by $10-20,000, and even in some cases–as New York–by 30,000, and average $15,000 greater incomes overall.

The advantages of backing Trump by well-off individuals, attracted by his low rates of taxation and openly pro-business anti-union attitudes.  Many are as interested in not being constrained by governmental regulations, or keen to preserve their earning from taxes–as Trump has promised.  Yet Trump has staged and even choreographed his campaign as a masterpiece a faux populism.  While supported by the pro-business interests opposed to Obamacare, immigration, or the welfare state and less concerned with marriage equality than with maintaining order, he has bragged about paying “as little [taxes] as possible” because he disapproves of spending priorities–and how this would translate into budgetary shifts as chief executive remain to be seen, even if the two years in which he paid no federal taxes correspond to years in which his earnings were negative.  Trump’s plan to lower taxes so  slashes tax rates across the board, including writing off all estate taxes and cutting the federal tax rate on corporate income to a degree from 35% to 15%, so favors the wealthy to necessitate broadening the tax base in ways that he has yet to fully thought to consider.  Trump’s supporters remain mostly white, and eager to display a patriotism they feel is abandoned or have been managed to be convinced has been abandoned–but his platform pays :  while Trumpism doesn’t and cannot explain Brexit and the “Leave the European Union” campaign in England, Trumpism echoes its faux populism in claiming to serve the people, but serving elites.   Trump conceals a deep seated elitism, evident in his policies’  pro-business, elitist, and anti-worker orientation, based on limiting government control over business profits and off-shore investments.  He invokes analogous fears his opponents will “create totally open borders for the United States” that will hurt the economy, but seems most interested in protecting low taxes for the wealthy, while removing “nearly 75 million households” from the tax rolls, it would need to be made up by an economy growing at a steady annual rate of 8% over ten years–but ignores the danger of the more likely ballooning of the federal deficit.

The intense fears Trump invokes of the arrival of refugees as criminals and cultivated in the campaign of fear that underlay so much of the Brexit vote are striking:  even as cities have voted to remain in the EU, it is the rural areas less capable of absorbing refugees from Eastern Europe or south of the border are more susceptible to the rhetoric of both Brexit and Trump.  For while neither the “Leave” or “Stay” or “Remain” votes were able to extend their claims outside of a rhetoric of rear, fear of immigration mobilized the “Leave” uprising against David Cameron’s conservatives in ways that offer a lesson to how we deal with Trumpism–and the xenophobia that The Donald has provoked for the lack of any political positions.  Both “Leave” and Trumpism endorse the notion that with the failure of the party to protect the nation, Government must be reminded of what is right–and encouraging to vote against “urban” values of integration, and the belief in an easy patriotism that a vote to “Leave” connotes of taking back the country.

And if concerns about migration have given an imagined pressing purpose of taking “back” the nation, the false agency that both provide are particularly potent where problems of social integration are more feared–an eager to wrap themselves in a simulacrum of patriotism to defend an imagined status quo.  The toxic and clueless notion that this is brave, or taking “back” their country, in the illusion that “speaking up” is an act of which one might be proud and has anything to do with actual liberty–but with a rejection of globalization, and a deep-seated ignorance of the nature of the nation-state.  What Trump praised as a “brave and brilliant” vote was in fact one of limited foresight, but won comparison to how “self-determination was a sacred right of all free people’s,” as if being in the European Union was a compromised freedom. And for all Nigel Farage has proclaimed that Brexit ‘will be a victory for real people’Leave conceals its promotion of Tory interests eventually destined to undermine social welfare and public health.



5126Mike Kemp/Getty Images 


Votes for Brexit were directed against fears tied to globalization, and to the problems provoked in the minds of many non-urban voters of immigration and refugees–and the fear with which immigration, and indeed a gleeful if asinine xenophobia, mixed with a disconnect from economic values, but disoriented with globalization.  How else to explain the distorted geography of the Brexit vote, where London and other urban areas went one way, and the more rural areas, save Scotland, went the other, and broke apart?  The Donald, hapless as ever, arriving in Scotland, eagerly tweeted off-key that “place going wild over the vote–they took their country back, just like we will take America back“–tone-deaf to the fact that Scotland voted so strongly against “Leave.”  Yet the prosperity Trump promises is openly rooted in individual interests, and of American values betrayed by Washington–as much as allegedly compromised by the European Union.


Detailed Brexit Breakdown



“Scotland voted to REMAIN in the EU, you idiotic delusional psychopathic compulsive liar,” replied Richard Cosgrove within a large chorus of tweeted replies.


I.  Data Visualizations and The Donald

1.  The candidacy of Trump has similarly grown as a way to thumb one’s nose at the world in an attempt to reorient the place of America at its center–and is presented in terms of a defense of “American” values.  The projects that Trump has most prominently championed seem destined to gain electoral and international attention, and appeal to national insecurities or need for more jobs.  But their curious obstinate rewriting of spatial geography–from the creation of an impermeable border, built as a wall along the US-Mexico border, the greatest project of national infrastructure since the national highway system, to deportation of migrants, to the introduction of prohibitions on the entrance of refugees, to the redrawing of military alliances in the name of “a new art of deal-making.”  Yet are these policies really in favor of most Americans?   They extend to defunding the Paris Accords and denying climate change–and reveal a deeply distorted imagined geography of economic and political relations.  The extent of this distortion may be a secret to the geography of Trump’s electoral appeal.  It suggests an uncanny ability to raise possible fears of losses of wealth and increases in crime, but conceals that it will actually work against the interests of most.

Trump’s depiction of the suffering globalization had brought to the United States.  The rapid spread of Trumpism is poorly captured in  data visualizations, however.  Although many supporters of The Donald dwell on the margins of the traditional center of the GOP, in groups who have often not general election voters,  the appeal of Trumpism as an ideology extends beyond the “silent majority” of white non-voters or less educated voters, and are poorly captured by fictional electoral projections.  For it lies in the acceptance of Trump’s populism as exactly that–much as the British campaign to leave the EU, led by Boris Johnson, is less about skepticism of European integration or a fear of refugees than the exploitation of fears of immigration to further an agenda that is far from populist.


e;ectpra; ,a[New York Times/ May 4, 2016


In the course of marketing his candidacy to the nation, he has reduced political discourse to byte-sized bits, often tied to individual whims, as he has boasted his version of honesty and convictions, in ways that it seems challenging if not impossible to impose order for them to be clearly mapped in order to better understand why his peculiar perspective of a “unitary executive” rooted in his own public persona–rather than his aptitude or political experience or representational theory–has gained such widespread success.  The appeal of Trump may lie in his ability to promise to overcome long-lasting political divides across the country, symbolically rendered by “red” and “blue” states, appealing to a demographic alienated from the political class and ready to identify with a movement seemingly less rooted in faction and opposition, with few expectations from a legislature or for protecting any rights save their own.   While Hamilton’s notion of checking interests by an executive that is circumscribed both through the cheek of legislative deliberation, Trump’s flaunting of open disregard for civil law or individual rights imagines an executive more unitary than Secretary Hamilton had ever conceived, and a public ready to expand executive powers.

After being puzzled by Trump’s astounding success within the Republican primaries, the prospect of mapping Trump’s advancement to presumptive nominee of a party on whose margins he long lurked is both disorienting and terrifying and necessary to confront.  Even as Trump’s own positions are hard to pin down, his reactions not only mutable but fickle, the open image of authority he presents seems the basis for his appeal.  Rather than grasp the progress of Trumpism, we have often remained dumbfounded, silent and distraught before Donald Trump’s appeal across an electorate–including not only among independents and Republicans, but reaching into Democratic voters–as if a sort of anesthetic for a patient who prepared to lie etherized upon a table.  And as Trump unexpectedly emerged as something close to a Republican consensus candidate, rather than a curiosity of the early days of the primary, we’re compelled to wonder whether the candidates on the ticket will divide along the familiar divide between red and blue states divide that haunts our electoral maps, or how Trumpism may stand to change that landscape in new ways, whether or not Trump is eventually victorious in his bid to be elected Commander-in-Chief.

For Trump has generated support by refashioning his own notion of a unitary executive  with disturbing parallels to George W. Bush’s notion of “no limits on the Executive’s judgement”–in the words of John Yoo–that seems to demonize global change.  In this sense, using outrageously racist and openly misogynist statements to energize audiences imagines the executive as not as commander- but “Cartographer-in-Chief” by denying global change by re-drawing a new mental map of the world.  The deeply distorted spatial geography of Trumpism creates something of a bulwark against globalization and globalism.  For in declaring an executive that will work “for Americans invokes perceived dangers, proposing a heightened isolationism from dangers existing most entirely in its audience’s imagination, if clothed as patriotism.   Such perceived dangers replace the lack of any ideology, but exist most entirely in its audience’s imagination.  They render many passionate about a candidacy even though it would run against their actual economic interests, since it promotes a nostalgic narrative of restoring an ever-elusive Era of Great Jobs and American Greatness, in which Americans Come First, even if the promise should raise skeptical eyebrows.  Yet presented with the authority of Reality TV, where a star can make decisions by fiat without needing evidence, the promise to Make America Great Again has gained credibility as an appeal in which more and more Americans subscribe, as the promise to renew America’s greatness appears rooted in a nostalgic narrative of restoring an ever-elusive Era of Great Jobs and American Greatness–and an outright demonization of “refugees,” “foreign workers,” and “illegals”–a term of increasing hatred.


Americans Come First


2.  Attempts to map Trump’s candidacy have only begun to explore reasons for that appeal in provocative ways.  This post tries to use his rhetoric to unpack the appeal of Trumpism–moving from a national map to a global map to, in its third over-expansive section, the centrality of Trump’s misogyny in specific within his presentation of his candidacy.  More than for any candidate in recent memory, Trump appeared to the nation on the medium of television–it is difficult to distinguish the political ability or aptitude of the candidate from the ecosystem and dynamics of Reality TV.  For as The Donald mastered the illusion of being a pseudo-populist spokesman who defended corporate elitism, he created a persona so strongwas long in charge that it poses the challenge of containing the assault of ambition Hamilton so feared, and proposed the unitary executive  would prevent.

The persona that shaped his candidacy fostered rivalries among his opponents, convincing Americans that his leadership and business skills constitute abilities of executive judgement necessary for the job, without being held to account, treating the campaign as a bizarre sanctioning of hate speech, racism, and misogyny alike.  While luring a demographic while promising to create jobs to the polls, Trump’s image as a businessman whose authoritarian decisions are infallible and based on mere summary review of the circumstances was performed long before he flirted with his Presidential candidacy in 2011 before declaring in 2015.  The mainstream media perhaps encouraged the persona and style of public engagement fashioned on Reality TV, perpetuated by free air-time equal to 1.9 million in publicity–not counting near-continuous coverage from FOX.  Such generous airtime help Trump flaunted his authority, concealing a record number of inaccurate statements meriting pants-on-fire ratings from Politifact in his trademarked pattern of “truthful hyperbole.”  Indeed, the figure that The Donald cultivated on Reality TV was not ever in need of investigating the facts, and neither is the candidate.

Trump has clearly exploited outlets of social media and television in ways that reflect a broad desire and satisfaction for engaging audiences analogous to that he had defined over fifteen years on Reality TV, but the seamlessness of its translation to the GOP is striking.  Audiences familiar with his persona have appreciated his unprepared ad-libbed statements as more honest or forthright in ways that demand to be mapped.  By extending and expanding his persona as a brand of success, leadership, and executive skills to define his candidacy through skills honed from fifteen years of Reality TV, Trump has not only lowered national expectations for political discourse but accepted his anger, misogyny and name-calling, and outrageousness–in ways that cheapen political discourse, but shift the standards of expectations to the confusion of his opponents in the Republican Primary.  Such pronounced courting of public attention is evident in Trump’s boasts that his “net worth is in excess of TEN BILLION DOLLARS” [sic]–as if adopting the teletype font abandoned as the National Weather Service changed to mixed-case letters to yell at the nation–as well as broadcasting misogynist slurs, as a third half of this post will argue through how Trump returned to Megyn Kelly after his performance in the first Republican debate, avoiding a second debate in Iowa and resisting her interrogation of his past statements in March.


3.  The Trump candidacy is a diminution of political discourse or analysis would resemble something like a true Closing of the American Mind, if it were not a thinning of the notion of political representation–and, perhaps, a radical diminution of the expectations of what government’s role is in public, and what government might accomplish.  Trump’s promise of bringing back jobs plays particularly well to depressed areas of the south, midwest, and northeast–if the promise isn’t assumed to lie within in a President’s actual ability, the expectations are low for the truth-value of statements by Trump persona, leaving the nation in suspense over the fate of those grey “undecided” states.  Never mind that this economic miracle is not what government can accomplish–and certainly not what an executive can accomplish–unless he is invested with a thaumaturgical power of big business who has been accepted in the public mind and collective consciousness as the boss, and as the image of self-made capitalist success story–and not only incarnating the American Success Story, as his website has it, but the great deal-maker, boss, and boardroom CEO that his simulacrum of success declares him to be.  Has Trump been convinced, after over a decade of playing Boss in Trump Tower, of his ability to create an economic turn-around, or does he crave and demand the attention from the electorate that this is a role he can actually hold?




The chromatic personification of a “state” may simply enable the sense of agency that most modern politics has lacked.

The considerable communicative skill by which Trump has captivated national audiences by low levels of ad libbing have however shifted political discourse, and provided a basis for his unique appeal of using media–television and twitter–as a basis to create a candidacy that seems independent from political judgement or factual examination.  Trump’s experience with Reality TV gave him a deeper appreciation of the medium of addressing his audience, and of expectations for expressing his own personal authority.  Despite Trump’s pronounced lack of expertise in government, his pronounced absence of attention to civil liberties or discourse however remains preoccupying–although it has attracted both mainstream media attention and support among fringe groups, equally entranced by the unprecedented model of authority he has put forth, dedicating himself to revealing and attacking individual flaws unerringly, and harping on unarticulated fears–“there’s something going on, and it’s bad”–often ungrounded, but which gain consensus and support, and that he would be able to bring back jobs.

The deep sense of something askew Trump has created, which seems intended to martial a deep current of distrust in government and governmental oversight. Indeed, the unbalance he generates in audiences almost suggests Trumpism has a logic, although Trump’s absence of consistency or coherence may not seem like reinventing the Republican party, but has attracted a broad consistency and claims up to 85% Republican support across the country–posing the possibility of entertaining multiple electoral maps and data visualizations ready newly settling tea leaves about the nation’s political future.


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We are almost collectively questioning how his victory came to be as the result of a democratic process.  So seemingly boggling is the transformation of this curious candidate from a marginal ranter, allowed to declare wildly that Mexicans are rapists, thugs and criminals,  offering his own emotions, in place of conclusions, about possible or actual terrorist attacks and retributions on ISIS, that we’re almost unable to grasp how those emotions translate so readily the scope, scale and extent of that appeal in a map  Even while faced with the spread of Trump’s appeal, his pronounced streak of authoritarianism remains stubbornly difficult to process or translate to an electoral map, in part because he has defined his candidacy outside of political parties’ positions or a sequence of poor political decisions, and appealed by promising a resolution of and exit from a political stalemate.  Has he emerged as the candidate of the clueless he presents himself to be, or has he sought to court collective confusion?  Trump has magnified fears by misleadingly manipulative television advertisements intoning about the dangers that face the country, indulging in notorious mismappings of its place in a changing world.

While there was considerable contentless in mid-March at reading the safe swaths of non-Trump states that surrounded the solid core of red to which The Donald’s popularity among the discontented once seemed confined–




–the recent expansion of what The Donald sees as “qualifying” as battleground states to many previously Democratic regions, including rust-belt states as Pennsylvania and Ohio, are concentrated on ideas of winning the most predominantly white states, where Bernie Sanders beat Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, suggesting the symbolic power of the maps of delegate distribution in shaping the strategy of Team Trump–as well as the desire of some in the media to convert delate-maps to the art of political prognostication:


Trump's Focus?


The visualization has offered a rallying cry for predicting electoral victory and generating national momentum behind Trump’s candidacy, as if to play to the television audience.  The ability of The Donald to create his constituency through what appeared authority through uncivil speech, moreover, was not only permitted to Trump among candidates, but his style of speech was able to orient a huge number of supporters.  By illustrating the  notion of “states in play” Trump has introduced symbolic but intentional anxiety-triggers among Democrats, as well as the national press.  The over-confident expansion of the “battleground states” aptly quash media attention to the Syrian civil war and global terrorism, aggressively placing the political map of America at the center of global politics, in ways that mirror how the Trump camp shifts attention form the world to the United states and its interests, transforming political issues to empty slogans–Make America Great Again –or a boldness that seems to suck all the energy out of the room, and deflate political discourse to melt in your ear byte-sized bits.

The persona of Reality TV has become a persona, similarly, for The Donald to engage the electorate–citing the rise of his poll numbers as if citing his television ratings, and offering to debate for a few million dollars, albeit for charity.  Trump has waged his war of insults and attacks individual weaknesses in ways that engaged his audience, illustrating his skill at the medium as a tool for conveying emotions, as much as ideas.  The disgust and indignation that Trump has long done best at emoting to audiences seem far from a stump speech, but have so far been cobbled together, as if to diminish opponents dismissively with the relish he had previously engaged a national audience on Reality TV.  He has coupled with name-calling of “Little Marco,” “Lyin’ Ted,” and “Crooked Hillary,” with a skill at reducing debate to tweet-sized taunts and name-calling that gleefully perpetuate racist and sexist slurs that, if born on tabloids, curiously cultivate a  bite-sized discourse that deflects considered discourse, but seems to root audiences, affirmatively and almost existentially, in the here-and-now.  Trumpism’s hortatory style combining alarmism and protectionism was developed on social media for some time, as if in preparation for a run, as an extension of the persona he inhabited on Reality TV.

The number of pre-campaign tweets of The Donald addressed America by intimidation in an extension of his Reality TV persona, hectoring leadership and celebrity in 140 characters to the continued delight of twitter followers exposed to his NBC show, provoking discussions and hashtags as well as retweets that magnified his ‘political’ voice to a geography that transcended considerations for the electoral map familiar from placement of television ads.  “President Obama,” tweeted The Donald, cultivating his hectoring tone and urgency in the midst of the imagined fears of the Ebola crisis–before the fears of refugees, whose arrival was conflated with terrorism in the public imagination–“you are a complete and total disaster, but you have a chance to do something great and important:  STOP THE FLIGHTS!”  The quarantining of America off from global problems was effectively rehearsed on twitter for an audience.  His twitter account afforded a megaphone, at first ignored by many, by which to hector the President in an condescending fashion of outrageously undermining public authority–“Obama, stop the flights to and from West Aftica NOW – before it is too late!  Can’t you see what is happening?  Can you be that thick (and stupid)?”  Trump tried to extricate America from the world–as if to leave Ebola to the Africans.  Similarly, his promises to block the entrance of all Muslims into the country without a permit, repatriate undocumented immigrants en masse, curtail womens’ health care, and build a barrier against migrants from the nation’s southern border, classified as “murderers” and “rapists,” all serve to deny the world’s interconnectedness in deeply disquieting ways.  And, as he has assumed the role of Republican spokesperson, he has been explicit about removing America from the world:   a demand to “stop all payment of U.S. tax dollars to global warming programs” and a caution that “we can’t be sending money all over the world” and need to keep money at home “and bring our jobs back.”  The message is not what Republicans have been saying, but speaks to a a large part of the electorate as finally defending a license to self-interest.


Americans Come First


4.  The result of The Donald’s continued exhortations at rallies, on Twitter, and in his televised interviews is almost to wallow in disorientation to create trust in his manner.  Trump has vaunted a bluntness and brand of populism that extends beyond a rejection of political practice, but removes the country from the complexity of global relations or problems, affirming a patriotism eerily comforting for many.  But his deeper appeal lies less in his words than in the appeal of his authoritarian statements, as toxic as they are to civil society.  His candidacy combines the readily recognizable satisfaction of a brand we recognize–a brand whose authoritarian intonation and impulsive association was long honed on Reality TV, but confined to the screen–and a “new tribalism” fostered by the exacerbated nature of increasing economic and cultural divides, and banding together elements of the Patriot movementWhite Nationalists, Tea Party activists, as well as appeals to racial resentment–audiences that don’t have much need for facts, and are able to be satisfied with anger, and want to create government outside the current government.   The transition from screen to politics had been perfected by Ronald Reagan, and meets a similar conviction that The Donald is a person who can “put the country back on track“–even if there is little sign that it is off track, or was ever so great.

But Trump’s remove from a familiar political organization or operatives makes the rise of his candidacy quite new–although it fits with his rebuke of Washington and trade policies.  His credibility builds on personal celebrity rather than qualificationsbut create grounds for a broad rebuke of government less easily mappable by politics or ideology, so much as fear.  The force of his insistence of Making America “Great” echoes Reagan’s promise at a time of fear, and provides an unlikely if deeply compelling figure of authority as if to counter fears–indeed, it seems to create a new global map, however improbably, by preying on dissatisfaction with the assumed place of the United States in a globalized world–and how globalization might actually hurt the country.  The Donald has evoked fears that he interlaced with critiques of the very policies that Washington adopts–from safety from terrorist attacks to the departure of jobs to the new image of American authority, from protecting American jobs to cultivating a stronger military, that are projected onto a deeply creating a disquieting global map of being ripped off by everybody.”

“Trumpism” champions a restoration and return to blatant self-interest to national politics, directing anger at free trade, illegal immigrants, accepting refugees, linking the nation’s permeable borders and job loss–despite broad acceptance of free trade’s benefits to the nation–in the name of a politics of protectionism, tariffs, and protection of the nation from external threats he often irresponsibly evokes to give greater credibility to his campaign.  How his inflammatory rhetoric maps onto greater credibility as a candidate may lie in the geography to which Trump’s language appeals.  And if the frustration that Republicans have long voiced before many of President Obama’s policies and actions–from universal health care to the reopening of a national discussion about race to immigration policies to gay marriage to a recent directive for transgender bathrooms–as unwontedly invasive in scope, the Trump candidacy caught fire as far more than a rejection of Obama’s legacy–but indeed a lack of normalcy in particularly conservative ways.   (If legislators from Texas Alabama, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Utah and Georgia, and Maine jumped to sue the federal government, they do reveal clear fault lines and dissensus that Trumpism channels.)

Trump’s authoritarian expression of anger at the existing status quo elevates the level of anger Fort he appeal of Trump’s candidacy, if difficult to map, extends beyond a rejection of Obama’s values, as it trumpets a rejection of civil rights, and something approaching an anger at free speech and civil liberties.  The scary progression of a series of victories in states across the lower forty eight make it impossible to deny his broad appeal as a candidate–but challenge one to come to terms with what political geography, if any, the phenomenon of Trumpism has wrought, or by what platforms, angriness, dissatisfaction and promises led him there.


Eric ThayerEric Theyer/New York Times


For Trump seems to move among them in public speeches to invent an image of political appeal against the grain of American politics, and to empower those who lack faith in the current political process and apparent immobility of much of government–especially outside of urban America, an area with which he long took pains to identify himself, where new levels of despair and alienation are increasingly overlooked by Washington–and at a time when news sources are less evenly distributed than most of the twentieth century–among whom he has come to be a welcome authoritarian spokesperson of “American interests” in offering to Make American Great Again, as if to cultivated unwarranted fears about America’s decline at a time of generally increased prosperity and global strength.

Or does this appeal not lie in the increasing disconnect, literal and metaphorical, from a globalized world in a large part of American geography?




Trump’s wishful if disgruntled invitation to Make America Great Again resonates wth an electorate of which he came to win vast majorities in a multi-candidate race, his brand ensured by his projection go authority and strength.  Even as Trump promises to value constitutional principles, as if to signal his conservatism, eclectic pronouncement and positions made him notoriously difficult to map politically, or to reflect a set constituency, so much as aspire to individual authority.  Indeed, they are so potentially changeable and transient as if to root his candidacy in a cult of constructed personality–rather than a platform whose position can be mapped.  Trump has courted the electorate to stay in a media spotlight with such insistence to prevents him to adopt a fixed position, but assert himself as a center of attention with increasingly inflammatory statements that reject issues from defining his campaign.  From being dismissed as a fringe Republican candidate from his June 2015 announcement, in fact, when he was positioned outside of the “mainstream” Republican gang of seventeen just a year past–Nate Silver neatly mapped Trump’s outsider status for FiveThirtyEight long ago, in what seems an archeological artifact as much as a data vis.


silver-datalab-gopcandidate-venn-7-29Nate Silver Datalab/FiveThirtyEight ESPN


In but a year, Trump has become the dominant and magnetic center of attention and presumptive nominee, even if his relation to the party is uncertain, by circumventing the political platform of the party and its structure, and many resist donating to his campaign–which he promised to self-fund.  For Trump works by making his person the center of his campaign, waging personal attacks a a primary model of political combat.

Is this a change in the ecosystem of representational politics, as Ross Douthat once  gleefully celebrated unforeseen by political analysts, or an extension of the politics of celebrity?  Or is it more due to the degree to which Trump so ably incarnates fears that have been raised by Republicans in the past and in previous elections to social change, and then raises?   His promises seek to curry a wide audience and range from an increased military, to a decreased emphasis on civil liberties, and restriction of citizenship  that are far removed from the very issues that other candidates raised about the budget, conservatism, abortion rights, or gay marriage, but a fear of outsiders and a desire for a restoration of familiar figures of male authority that echo the “traditional values” evoked by Ronald Reagan and run against sharply against the grain of the very individual civil liberties protected by the US Constitution.  The expansion of a constituency ready to accept an increased circumscription of individual liberties to create greater order–and lend credibility to disconnected pronouncements of security in a globalized world.

Trump has moved to presumptive nominee with a speed due to the rapidly changing landscape of politics in the age of social media–and the political landscape–as well as the volatility of the American electorate.  Indeed, the odd absence of a clear spectrum of choices at this point in the Presidential race is almost disquietingly eery, as the five-ring circus has been replaced by something of a one-man show, dominated by an atmosphere of awe and adulation at The Donald who seems to have won the nomination seemingly on the basis of his personality as much as his political positions.  Trump’s candidacy has not been achieved by media alone, however, but, recalling the male persona of Reagan or John Wayne, if not male military figures of authority as Generals MacArthur or Patton, promising to incarnate the imagined stability and order of a lost time–elevating figures of authority above a diminished Playmobil White House, reduced to a trophy adorned with bunting and a minuscule disk of a presidential seal–in a sort of simulacrum of the presidency, devoted to confirming the authority of The Donald.


Trump Toys


If such reaching outside of the available models for leadership suggests a reflection of political practices that have tired the nation in the past fifteen years and four presidential terms, they rest on an increased fragmentation of national unity and a deep uncertainty of American “interests” that has enabled Trump’s apparently authoritarian vision to be assembled.  Poised between cutouts of Ronald Reagan and John Wayne, the imaginary if legendary cowboys of the past, Trump recuperates a Republican authoritarianism removed from party positions, ideology or conservative doctrine whose rehabilitation of “echoes of fascism” presents voters with a quite selective rehabilitation of how fascist movements give license to the individual as an image of the collective.  Yet it is not a paradox that Trump’s campaign led his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame to be defaced, as it symbolizes his media presence and fame on Reality TV:  if Trump is not the first candidate to be part of the Screen Actor’s Guild, and only the second, the public defacement of his star attacked the power by which his television staged a persona of economic success.


Trump's Star.jpeg


The figures of authority Trump evokes and notoriously encourages by arriving at massive rallies during the  primaries by plane are less in response to economic difficulties, than to create new fantasies of American authority and leadership in an a global age that reject globalization.  The constellation of images symbolize a ruler able to strengthen the military, cow ISIS, empower military generals, and reform the nation’s global ties–diminishes the presidency as a representational office, casting the bunting-donned assembled Playmobil trophy below iconic images of individual authority:  Trump reveals a search for powerful symbols of authority that respond disorienting and uncertain remove from America’s global role, so far effective to people who are unemployed.  By championing of a reduction of civil liberties for immigrants, muslims, and women, in ways unable to be placed within constitutional traditions, he presents a fantasy of the Presidency as a strongman able to respond to global and local change, appealing to strong male values of leadership in response to male insecurities.  Yet extremely disquieting is the acceptance of Trump by a large contingent of established conservatives as the coronated candidate of the GOP.


Trump Toys.pngDamon Winter/NY Times


For as much as divide a party, or work outside of it, Trump’s outsized Reality TV persona, long cultivated on The Apprentice, is a model of authoritarianism less rooted in twentieth-century fascist crusades for moral purity than a crusade against a disorienting remove from a globalized world–and as such provides a new take on the famous America First movement or belief in American exceptionalism.  Indeed, the deep reluctance of The Donald during the political campaign to consult the national security community in framing his foreign policy is a terrifying lesson in dumbing down of the role of a President in orienting America to the world.  Trumpist bombast of a patriotic vein–“without us, Saudi Arabia wouldn’t exist!” “Tax China on products coming in!”  “American workers deserve a level playing field!”–sketch a map wildly removed from an interlinked world for credulous voters.  It may be that Trump the nominee will be a major force in the election that increased other interests will mobilize, capitalizing on his authoritarian pronouncements.


Hey . . . .png


Is Trump pursuing a perverse strategy of advertising his low level of familiarity with foreign policy to mirror the discomfort and disorientation of many across the nation, tired from engaging in a twelve tiring years of wars overseas, uncertain how to confront the growing tragedy of refugees, or control dangers of terrorism that they are ready for any rethinking of foreign policy?  Despite the stubborn obstinance of the apparent blue state-red state political map suggested a deep bias against Trump’s candidacy based on political preferences of most voters seemed to reveal quite a substantial deficit in electoral votes–



–yet the spread of Trumpism generates interest, media attention, and attract audiences irrespective of traditional demographic categories or political preference, rests on a need for change instead of moral purity or reform, that explains political necessity not by principal but as a rebuke of bad choices of the past.  Indeed, the regions where Trump’s appeal has grown seem most removed from how  foreseen megaregions  tied to the globalized world map onto the geography of parsing populations by electoral votes–


2050_Map_Megaregions2008_150-thumb-615x409-106683Eleven Emerging Megaregions/ Regional Plan Association/Washington Post


–and, far more clearly, to a heat-map showing differentials in internet speed, and demand for high-speed traffic, with increased speeds rendered in deeper shades of blue and diminishing speeds in increasing reds, mapping one proxy of the degree of interconnection of the United States to the world, and indeed access to a global economy.  In an information economy increasingly dependent on bandwidth to run, a map of variations in U.S. internet speeds reveal two Americas that map roughly onto Trump’s appeal–a second economy far less connected to the globalized world, if more attuned to the tweet.  Indeed, the collective revolt against the globalized world–and return to a single figure of authority and order–seems the basis of Trump’s campaign, and the celebration of a return to national boosterism.




Smoothed out in a kernel density map, the patterns and divides seem even clearer, and reveal a new rural area of low interconnectedness and increased alienation from the globalized world:


Internet SPeedElemental Studios (2014)


The map reveals a stark divide between two Americas.  Susan Crawford  has perceptively called attention of the need to address as a persistent “communications inequality” across the United States, where the acceptance of a slow, expensive internet run by TeleCom companies has created costs are epitomized by the absence of good internet service in much of America–even as increasing business is negotiated online.  The divide among two Americans along internet speeds is clearly market-driven, but also creates a deeper culture of economic and cultural remove–a divide which even a map of population density doesn’t correlate.   Even mapped against population density by congressional districts, the correlation isn’t entirely evident a reflection of this deep digital divide–a center of those places where Trump’s rallies have been notoriously staged.


Trump Rallies Mapped


Has the increased inequality of these tools of globalization–the internet; high-speed information flows; communication industries; IT transfers–created two levels of economic aspirations?  Despite the overall increasing strength of the US economy, has the process of globalization also created a broad disenfranchisement and powerlessness in the same economy, matched by a desire to see a withdrawal from global policy?  The very areas that feel most removed from high-speed service feel less interconnected to the global economy and lie in the bottom two-thirds of the income distribution.  Far less closely correlated by maps of demographics or population density–or the correlation of download speeds to population density, such visualizations reveal deep divides and shifts in ties to a new economic order–as well as attitudes toward economic security that in large part mediates the apparent increasing success of the Party of Trump.

18ymc8sbhrn7tjpgElemental Studios


Even if we look back at how web cartographer Andy Woodruff used alpha-by-value techniques to reweigh the divides between red vs. blue state of the 2008 presidential campaign outside the prison-cage of the cartogram for clues of a similar distribution–


Value by Alpha Woodruff Woodruff

one lacks, particularly in the midwest and northeast.  Yet one must not isolate the map of the United States where Trump appeals most from the outsized role Trump gives to external threats of trade and immigration–and the seats where they have greatest appeal.    The rejection of globalism lies in regions most removed from information technology, but still immersed within and receptive of the data flows that issue across the country, yet  both unwilling and less able to be able to navigate this environment of global data flows–and insecure about America’s future.





5.  Trump preys on a mental map where globalism has created a tragedy from which the United States actually suffers.  Trump pronounces on the unfairness of globalization to the United States in ways effectively absurd–given the large number of impoverished from globalizing markets and the large number of refugees dispersed in a globalized world, and the disproportionate suffering actually experienced by developing countries.  Yet the growing credibility of globalization’s ties to actual grievances of a loss of jobs, stagnation of wages, or long-term unemployment for many are encouraged byTrump’s insistence that Americans have been “ripped off“–as if to empower a reaction to economic changes that may have more systemic origins.  Yet Trumpism offers a medium for channelling resentment for those who feel America deserves better than it has received, and that deals of free trade are not about enriching the nation, but sending further jobs offshore.

The background radiation to the rise of Trumpism is in part a decline in manufacturing jobs, and an sharp decline of manufacturing jobs departing to China, and a growth in anxieties of the costs of free trade and the rise of foreign dangers.  The ongoing background buzz of terrorism, unemployment, and a decline of new job creation ignores that unemployment rates have in the past year dropped in 47 states, and only increased in two.  But it is nourished by drastically different rate of job creation in regions of the nation, and a remove of job growth from many of the areas where Trumpism appeals:


uneven country.jpeg

Voice of America/ from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2015)


Indeed, it is nourish by a geography of broad declines in real median household incomes over the past ten years, concentrated in the midwestern states, perhaps, but running along the eastern seaboard, southwest, and much of the south:


Real Median Household Income

American Community Survey/US Bureau of the Census


And it is accompanied by a dramatic shift to the expansive growth of low-wage jobs since 2008, or after the recession but after Obama’s election–of jobs without possibilities of professional advancement, creating deeper insecurity across so much of the nation, that increased perceptions of job losses and difficulties in securing long-term employment:

growth of low wage jobs 2009-13.png

Martin Prosperity Institute/CityLab (2013): Growth of Low wage Jobs in US (2009-13)


The uneven topography of recovery from the recession has left many distinct pockets of relative unease, in this graphic based Time magazine created from the data collected in the American Community Survey, as one snapshot of economic well-being:


poor recovery from recession 2009 TIME.png


The result is a new topography of job creation, focussed on hubs of the new information community, but leaving other areas of the country behind, and a decline in the regions where working class employment is projected to change:   revealing many regions of the heartland marked yellow or green, for Trump to stoke injustice just waiting to happen:


growth - working classCitylab: Boom Towns and Bust Towns/Martin Prosperity Institute


In this context, by trumpeting an authoritarianism as a means to resolve growing uncertainty and fear, Trump has taken public pronouncements of incivility to new heights–moving from angry rebuffs of Muslim refugees to dismissals of existing trade treaties, and indeed longstanding military treaties of global security, to almost interchangeable target whose deeply disorienting nature raises clear questions of how corrosive they are to political debate.  For if Trump’s apparently righteous anger at Muslims, illegal immigrants, Chinese or to America’s foreign obligations obscure an actual geography of a globalized world, their appeal perpetuates a deeply distorted world view in dangerous ways.  Whereas maps often provide coherence to a world-view, Trump’s evocation of imbalances suggest only an absence of harmony that preys on an unarticulated background radiation buzz of fear and discontent and fear at a globalized world of growing refugee traffic and an unclear future.

–we can only find a quite limited explanation of the wide appeal of Trump’s widely televised and tweeted authoritarianism.


Muslim Ban.png

Trump Banner Immigration 1:17:16.png


The distributions of commerce networks or of internet access trace populations that mirror regions that respond to Trumps’s rants against globalization, free trade, and the sealing of America’s boundary with Mexico.  If the movement of Trump toward the domination of the political contest–or “five-ring circus”–demanded a new center of gravity, outside of the axes of Libertarian-Tea Party-Christian Conservative-Republican Establishment, the reorientation of the political field suggested not only a collapse of ossified power structures, or a hunger for rejecting the very predictability of a Presidential race and a deep anger at the political class and globalization of American politics, but a new medium to connect with his constituency that seems to challenge the landscape of the presidential election in ways for which there is no apparent script or clear strategy.  Trump’s insistence on the failed nature of the current political landscape however nourishes Trumpism like no other political movement across the country.  “I will get it done,” he tells audiences; “Politicians will never get it done,” he adjures, promising to bring back jobs and conjuring specters of muslims, and illegal immigrants, as if they were poised on the borders of the country.

While there was ample precedent for revolution from the structure and hierarchy of the party in the Tea Party, which grew in response to Barack Obama’s first election as President, Trump’s outsized and overly-“mediatized” persona created a focus for this movement within a new geography of political networks, more distinctly rooted in a person than in political practice, removed from political decision-making or values.  To be sure, the openly combative language of congress over the past eight years seems to have opened a gap of political opposition that Trump extended into social media.  Trump’s promises are mostly chest-thumping assertions of power that seem pure brinksmanship as much as a wish list of personal authority:  building a wall sealing the Mexican border to stop “illegal” immigration of “criminals” sure to provoke a crisis in NAFTA; forcing every elementary and high school in America to allow guns and allow “concealed carry” in all fifty states; engaging Putin, and dismantling our existing foreign policy; defund Planned Parenthood at huge cost to health car; “get rid of” Obamacare and the EPA at untold civic cost; ban most “foreign Muslims” from entering the United States; immediately deport 11 million “illegal immigrants” from the United States; expel Syrian refugees and refuse any to enter the country; surveil all mosques; restore waterboarding; provide low-cost golf for all Americans.  The result of sealing the border and deporting current residents would remake the country, to be sure, and not only radically curtail access to public health care.

What sort of geography allowed such a transformation of the political electoral process?  How did these plans acquire validity to a majority of states?  The question is perhaps more pressing than the vacuum in politics Trumpism suddenly filled, less with a language of moral urgency or purity than a new mode of address the itself disparaged the political process as if it were an already outmoded system.  For by dispensing with the spectrum of ideological map that had characterized political debate, Trump not only upset the categories for Republican politics–indeed, his movement is poorly understood as an heir to the Tea Party, for all appearances of bucking the party establishment has far less ideological consistency or coherence.  The landscape seems to be played out in a language of growing fears that Trump stokes.  What played out was as clearly geographical in practice as it was ideological in nature, begun in the series of Southern States which responded to Trump’s racially charged language and continuing in the east and midwest.


6.  The result created a semblance of coherence that no one imagined existed in the Republican party before, if of a fissile nature.  It seems incomprehensible that negative feelings served to bond the passengers bounding together on the Trump Train.  But the Trump constituency seems drawn together by shared negativity–opposition to immigrants, hatred of the “political class” from which they are alienated, and racist sentiment, as much as economic anxiety–even if they are fearful of whites losing out in a new America where ether assume minority status.  Many find comfort in the well-chosen words The Donald daily pronounces  on his social media megaphone , despite the absence of a clear “vision” for the country.  Trump offers verbal shards of tweets to generate ongoing momentum for a campaign with few identifiable policies beyond constructing a wall on the US-Mexico frontier and immigration barriers for Muslims to prevent their entrance into the country, both in blatant disregard of individual and human rights.

If human rights are low on Trump’s list, he has cultivated a constituency of his own.  For his constituency responded to his tweets and retweets with passion.  If Twitter has been Trump’s megaphone, and a media that fits his outsized personality, it is also an easy medium of assault demanding limited attention: on Twitter, Trump dispenses bite-sized bits of his often disjointed rambling speech patterns parsed in 140 characters that seemed designed to lower political discourse, cowed from the boardroom of Trump Tower–creating a mystique of being both approachable to his audience and somewhat exalted, as journalist Megyn Kelly, who Trump angrily and vulgarly dismissed on Twitter and national television, after she asked why he vulgarly insulted women with such regularity in the first Republican Presidential debate, later cozied up, imagining him writing tweets attacking her person in “like, a crushed velvet smoking jacket, you know, chaise lounge, slippers” in a position of personal power that catered to his self-image.  Rather than question his construction of himself as a powerful man, Kelly seems to have cozied up to it.

Is Trump not the fantasy of a white, privileged man of power in a globalized world?


Kelly:Trump Draw--"you're so powerful".pngMegyn Kelley “interviewed” Donald Trump in Trump Tower’s Board Room


7.  If this has been a Facebook election, the pronounced role of social media in defining allegiance and conducting what passes as debate has been central in shaping Trump’s candidacy, and honing the issues that are central to Trumpism.  The art of the tweet helped close the deal for the presumptive nominee because it was a media landscape his Republican competitors seemed to find so very alien, as The Donald reveled in a media that could accommodate his excess.  Twitter was less a weapon for Trump that the media by which he honed his voice as an authority figure within the news, providing a point of reference in the media that enhanced his status as a regular commentator on public events, despite his absence of political experience–and the tweet of Trump became an emblem for many of a voice of authority within the media cycle.  It is not a coincidence that Trump’s rallies–the pronounced occasions for direct speech and communications with supporters–have assumed an outside prominence in this election, piercing through the new cycle, far more than the Obama 2008 rallies.  And unlike them, the spread of protests that increasingly followed Trump’s public appearances–which became, surprisingly, events that increased support among Trump supporters.


Trump RalliesVocativ, 39 of the 44 Trump campaign rallies sights of counter-protests (Leon Markovitz)


As Trump’s tweets gained far more sustained media attention than any actual debates among Republican candidates, and even displaced political analysis, the fabric of political discourse changed.  Trump steered himself through twitter tiffs and wars from the margins to the mainstream, taking possession of a mediatized landscape, as much as by a political platform, trumping vague values without a position paper, dispensing with a director of traditional political media–or with a media director–as he invites his followers to simply follow, retweet, and align themselves with his campaign, and to enjoy its dismissive and insulting twitter-feed by retelling in his raucous tweets as an alternative news media that drowns out–and ridicules–the opposition and even shapes a master-narrative around individual events as suspected acts of terrorism to create its own news.  Trump’s rapid migration from the margins to the center of American politics has not quite sanctioned a rise in bigotry, but used a language of Islamophobia and anti-immigrant Nativist politics to propel himself into the center of politics, and emerge as standard-bearer that few in the party are ready to disavow.

Although maps are the basis we’ve understood recent elections–we map the distribution of electoral votes, and they provide icons of the representational process–the appeal of Trump busts open not only existing demographic categories, and attracts an inexorably rising percentage that assembles a demographic category of its own–more spectators and fans, perhaps, of the like-mindedthan political supporters.  Can the mapping of the electorate even provide a credible basis to understand Trump’s appeal in this election?  Or is the overwhelming of  inundation of disorienting infographics that distill the impression of ever-increasing global interconnectedness another basis for Trump’s continuing appeal, as folks turn to his candidacy for the sort of sure-fire orientation he promises to cross-border movement?


I. Trump’s Endlessly Televised Campaign

1. Trump’s campaign must be removed from the practice of electing a president, but viewed within the optic of a deep fears that the candidate, breaking with political practice, has sought to generate–identifying with the fears of the electorate, as much as trying to calm them.  For The Donald seems less to “disrupt” the election, than to prey upon individual fears, and provide new targets to be fearful of and to distrust–and provide a semblance of leadership to encounter the most pressing ones.  We are of course not threatened by an impeding arrival of refugees–but Trump wants to make the promise that he will protect the nation, and secure its boundaries, if only to raise the possibility that the are under assault.


Screen Shot 2016-05-07 at 11.10.32 AM


The issue of cross-border movement has perhaps been Trump’s trump card in the race, played both during his announcement of his candidacy, restated on NBC’s Meet the Press, retweeted widely and offered in rallies and debates.  The wall provides evidence of Trump’s ability transfer his talents as a master-builder to the country’s defense–“I will get it done. Politicians will never get it done“–while conjuring wildly conflated specters of Muslims, illegal immigrants, jihadists and undocumented Mexican migrants, “illegal” crossing of borders with rapidity–even when depicting border-crossings on other borders–to make anti-immigration policies a centerpiece of his campaign to respond to fears of the non-minority status of Hispanics in the United States.   If others are cast as “very weak,” “pathetic,” and “desperate” over the twitterverse, Trump returns to the wall as an illustration of the aptness of a good builder to the role of Commander-in-Chief.

Yet the shiftiness, and the introduction of proposals that curry attraction and attention, as much as provide platforms that are retained in the Trump campaign suggest a hydra dependent on devouring media attention, and seeking attention, in his use of Twitter to lay down policy proposals that are almost stunts, bait, or teases, designed to gain attention and support, as they are spun out of Trump’s mouth in marketed messages that define his brand and the odd opiate that it offers his audience by arguing, against the facts, that those in charge have been duped, and deserve blame for nationals ills that can be righted by a new executive.  If the shiny new vision of Trumpistan that he proclaims, a country where immigrants are kept out and refugees repulsed, responds to the increased racial diversity in America, where whites are no longer a non-majority presence, it also serves both to sanction and include  voices long held outside civil discourse.

For the broad currency of Donald Trump is not limited to the promise of economic change or increased employment that he makes, so much as the anger that he emotes against the status quo:  Trump supporters are not so clearly linked to economic anxiety, which seems a poor  predicted of Trump support after other factors are controlled so much as animosity–and indeed the validation of animosity.  Despite the mirroring of the disproportionate lack of college education that distinguishes the constituents of The Donald with increased economic difficulty, the particular form of populism correlates strongly to intolerance of race, toward the transgender, feminists, muslims and immigrants.  The strong negativity of Trumpist supporters toward people of color and non-whites–a voice long absent or at least marginalized to civil discourse in America–is statistically paired with far greater ethnocentrism: supporters of Trump are also most resentful that non-whites will take jobs that would be available for white, and that whites should work together to secure jobs.

The sense that Trump Tower provides a new metaphor and refuge of the ship of state for these groups, and a home in which they could be collectively