Category Archives: infographics

The Less Visible Paths of Economic Giving

At the same time as Pope Francis elegantly entreats all to view the world less through the distortions of economic markets–and without forgetting those who are all too often overlooked–we rightly grapple with ways of imagining global inequalities, working to view the world less in terms of economic markets of commercial exchange or banking centers.  For Francis asks us to find a way to map the debt the producers of greenhouse gases owe to developing countries, lest their weight fall on poorer countries, rather than industrialized countries bearing their cost, and as well as a way of correcting the usurious rates of lending money, by guarding against those “oppressive lending systems . . . which generate further poverty.”  The United Nations served as the  setting to stage a dramatically and radically revised ” Urbi et orbi” address by the first transatlantic pontiff, and one deeply conscious of that status.  Francis enjoined us to imagine a common good–chastened by the harms of seeing social needs only in terms of economics.  The moral injunction to consider the deepening economic imbalances of national debt recalls the difficulties of picturing a more equal and more ethical distribution of space, taking stock of the globalized world outside dominant patterns of economic exchange.

If oppressive systems of lending create states mired in relatively equally distributed poverty, and others increasingly less egalitarian–as JapanSouth Africa and the United States–poorer individuals or countries all too easily fall through the cracks and off the mental map that privileges dominant economies.  Indeed, so obsessed have we become with noting, accepting, and internalizing property lines that we seem trapped into forgotting the actual distribution of inequalities in our country.  The warping of economic conditions in the United States alone–a warping toxic for local politics, and compassion–are nicely illustrated in microcosm in a glorious if grotesque GIF Max Galko offered, via Metrocosm.  In its warping of a planimetric image of national space, it seeks to track the terribly troubling distortion of civic space by wickedly substituting residential values on land to reveal hypertrophied concentrations of capital in a few regions—mapping value onto land in ways that display the drastic diminution of housing stock in far more regions of the lower forty-eight that contract out of sight.


Metrocosm, based on data from US Census and Lincoln Institute of Land Policy


The bloated property values of urban and exurban areas are hardly signs of a healthily beating heart, but a Rabelasian image–if it weren’t also such a very accurate illustration of our current national political quagmire of using a map to create consensus when concentrations of wealth looks so different than the one which determines our representational government, and a clear social commentary and scathing socioeconomic critique.  For how can we create a clearer map of priorities, when the very levelness of a playing field is so distorted beyond recognition?  The cartographical contraction of so many areas that seem overlooked seems also a metaphor, as tNew York City, Miami, San Francisco, Seattle, Orange County and Chicago acquire hideously gargantuan proportions to seem countries of their own, as they assume their relative values of residential properties, leaving the majority of the country to disappear within the folds of their overvaluation and market-driven expansion, as if to show the difficulty with which market valuation maps onto our own space.  All this to raise questions of how a map of global economic relations might best begun to be traced, or how we might imagine the disruptive inequality on our perceptions of space–and, indeed, the inequalities that spatial orders increasingly come to reflect and perpetuate?

Does this image of a “beating” heart only map the absence of empathy in a map?

1.  For economic exchanges seem strikingly complicit in perpetuating inequalities, if only by diminishing those very inequities of economic productivity perpetuated in most maps fail to adequately attend or obscure.  One might hope, with geographer Andrew Linford, and Martin Lewis, the benefits of a map illuminating the inequities of global disparities in economic productivity–and try to use such a map to address how both regional and national disparities, often oddly dividing coastal areas from poorer interiors, might be overcome, and the ways that what pass as concerted attempts to do so often only shore them up. But such a map only confirms the sorts of distortions that most are only too aware already exist.

GDP Density

Geocurrents global  map of GDP Density (2011)

The illusion of equality is more often maintained by the belief that by mapping all aspects of the earth we are ensuring a sense of equality for all, or allowing no inequities to be hidden from view–as if the projects of world-mapping, and exposing to the public eye, is a means of responding to global needs–rather than obscuring these inequalities.

2.  Or can this even be captured in a map?  It bears noting that even if we have a totalistic map of global coverage, we tend to not come to terms with the depth of inequities and wealth, so obsessed we’ve become with what we can record as if it was a picture of the status quo.  In an age where outfits like Planet Labs or their friendly competitors at DigitalGlobe readily provide satellite-generated images that map the surface of the earth from space for their client base at an astounding resolution of two to three meters, what’s being mapped omits the truly important transactions, exchanges, money-laundering, and other financial transactions that underlie the ever more globalized economy.  Even as the platforms of Geo Big Data may appear comprehensive in detail, the undercurrents of these claims provokes questions about what they fail to communicate. Perhaps the very promise of totality for such claims of whole-Earth imagery–to be sure, at lower resolution for the state of Israel, by a ‘flock’ of “Dove” Satellites–only confirms that the real action lies elsewhere:  maybe in those shifting currents less readily subject to be seen, tracked or so readily surveyed, as much as on the edges of urban and rural life.  After all, if one accepts a uniform mathematical grid as a way of mapping, one omits any local knowledge of place, andy any notion of representation.

Satellite Dove

There must be more that resists such ready capture–from the rampant inequalities of wealth that organize our cities to the disparities of wealth around the world.  What other underground streams of electronic or financial transfers can we trace?  These streams constitute the new mare nostrum, the non-territorial terrain on which both worldly power and economic activities are waged, and run across the boundaries of either a settled or defined geopolitical space.  But the space of climate change is one that is best rendered as transcending a map of territorial bounds or geopolitical space that is rooted in the antiquated notion of “countries,” which not only seem increasingly removed from our planet’s fate–

Screen Shot 2015-07-13 at 8.21.05 PM

–but from it’s actual experience.

3.  The map “Money Trails” traces the actual paths of the disbursement of funds by the UN, World Bank, and 11 industrialized nations to reveal the distortion of global ties transcending geopolitical space.  So much seems revealed in the major unmapped pathways that structure our increasingly disturbingly decentered globe–which infographic artist Haisam Hussein used to map the distribution “foreign aid” in the pastel hues and curving bars reminiscent of the London Tube Map that the engineer Harry Beck so cleverly devised on the model of a simple circuit board–but which suggest a decentered lack of familiarity, and raise the stakes on processing how foreign aid is allocated, as much as to explain the circulation of funds with an air of transparency.


Lapham’s Quarterly

Hussein’s uncanny infographic tacitly calls attention to the status of Aid as an artifact of the Western World (to which Beck so clearly belonged), even if the destinations of most of the billions tend to arrive at destinations whose open circles peripheral to or far outside the west, from Afghanistan, Myanmar, Vietnam, Brazil, Kenya or the West Bank–as well as India and Ethiopia.  Beck’s design had once simplified the confusion that Londoners faced in confronting underground routes by simplifying the Tub to a circuit’s dense pathways in ways riders quickly came to disentangle:


What does it mean for huge sums of foreign aid to travel as they do, through such sanctioned if somehow secret hidden pathways of economic exchange?  Can one begin to disentangle their distribution by different agencies and governments, and the parallels sources of foreign aid dispatched to those needy, or to enter into a logic of their distribution?  Can one ever expect the distribution of Foreign Aid to run along such clearly defined pathways?

4.  In an age where the vast majority of financial transactions occur online and data centers channel chains of information with increasing speed, the paths of financial transactions are rarely transparently mapped.  Although we accept multiple ways of mapping and surveilling the world, but mapping the global exchange of money and financial assistance are less clearly established–if only because the mobility of money presents far less easy or a static image and is less about clear relations between place than often undisclosed channels of exchange.  If we know the GDP of different countries, national debt, global debt, or even map government debt as a percentage of GDP–we can rank countries’ relative consciousness of balance of payments, or the ability with which debt is able to be sustained, while those deepest crimson threaten to drop from view or implode:


Such a static distribution of debt offers a basis not to consider the distribution of productivity; it describes the ability of countries to carry debt even if carrying this load provides the basis to perpetuate their global roles.

The basis for understanding the circulation of money around the globe raise questions of the continued relevance of connectivity, distribution, and indeed the privileged point of orientation to the circulation of power.  For a map that privileges clear boundary lines of jurisdiction serves to regard each nation as an autonomous economic actor, but in an era of the paperless transaction of funds, the map that continues to privilege territoriality seems not only out of date, but increasingly irrelevant to describing the process of globalization.

One might also see the development of aid as a holding pattern or mode for tacitly creating consensus and uniting an increasingly uneven playing field of the economic state of play.  If empires were once seen as controlling the sea and mapping control of navigational spaces, the notion of the “Freedom of Seas” or Mare Liberum that Grotius proposed as the basis for mercantilism in the early seventeenth century have long ceased to be the basis or the illustration of imperial mandates:  whereas the concept of the Freedom of the Seas was in ways an extension of ancient Romans’ control over the Mediterranean, the ocean is no longer the screen to project projects of dominion than are the pathways of aid whose currents more aptly flow from centers of geopolitical power–and can only be mapped in far more fractured, and indeed postmodern, globalist terms, where economic aid is tied to the opening of markets as well as political ties–and might be far more challenging to map.  The sea is no longer the primary surface of economic exchange, and the relatively recent migration of monetary exchanges onto virtual space poses unique challenges to trace.

The less visible pathways and more visible tentacles by which foreign aid is dispensed may not only lend coherence to our national markets, despite the dramatic inequalities that continue to exist across the inhabited world–the expansion of aid may indeed make it ethically and conscionably possible to live in its huge differences of well-being and lifestyles that we wouldn’t be able to otherwise ignore.  An astounding $530 billion was informally sent, through unofficial channels, by immigrants, in 2012, according to the World Bank, in ways that might represent the economy of a sizable nation–and a huge uptick over the $132 billion sent in 2011.  The pathways of finance suggest a new model of global circulation of giving and receiving that offers something like an underlayer of the global economy.

Migrant money graphic.jpg

As of 2006, the money sent home from industrialized countries in the form of individual remittances was for the most part (outside of Africa) significantly larger than the official development assistance and foreign aid worldwide, according to the World Bank, whose donor countries commit to sustainable development or poverty reduction in ways that provide a plan for dealing with economic disparities.


But the dramatic expansion of foreign aid far more often travels along official currents, supported by a logic that demands some excavation of internationalist motivations that transcend mere economic need.

5.  While the notion of Christian charity was long linked to the local public use of personal wealth, as upper-class Roman elites gave money as they wanted to civic causes in much of Europe and North Africa, the flows of philanthropy that have been increasingly institutionalized have become ever more difficult to trace and complex to map as foreign aid has tried to reduce growing income disparities worldwide.  Giving is institutionalized by governments–and by United Nations organizations with the World Bank and their non-profit NGO allies, but mapping flows of philanthropy are far from the sorts of local giving of the past.  Increasingly mediated by non-national entities, the flow of funds in an era of global cash flows and transfers is increasingly dematerialized or immaterial, even when growing to the inconceivable amount of $160 Billion.

Perhaps rendering them concretely provokes more surprise than recognition as the courses of capital are remapped on a geographical projection.  And when Haisam Hussein chose to map trails of foreign aid against the famous transit map of a city once the financial center of world markets, as if to map the spatial contraction of the global economy to several principal routes of financial disbursement, the map suggests not only the mobility of money, but the degree to which the major economies like the United states and Japan, as well as Norway, Sweden, England, Germany, France, Australia and Canada pump money into a global system of credit that sustain global markets, helped primarily by the World Bank, and basically bankrolled by eleven nations, including Japan, Canada, the US, Britain, Sweden, Australia, Russia and South Korea–who exclude the “other area,” left grey on the map, of the People’s Republic of China.

Money Trails and UN

Lapham’s Quarterly

The money flows are modernistically represented as if to show the progressive possibilities of aid in streamlined terms, the distribution is at the same time  in no way equal and strikingly disproportionate and the larger flows of aid dissonantly disruptive of the modernistic design–the pathways of economic aid are clearly and lopsidedly dominated by the nations of the northern hemisphere.  Despite the modernism of the routes, the disproportionate paths on which aid travels disrupts the symmetry of its so sleek tube lines, as distortedly large baby blue rivers dominate the map as they flow from Japan beside yellow-gold currents from the United States, reminding one of the deeply engrained national inequalities that underpin much “giving” today–and dazzling us with an array of colors and flows that leads us almost to forget the global presence of the PRC, or the grey persistence of global poverty.

But the selective nature of support seems particularly striking–with, as of 2013, the UK tied to Pakistan, Ethiopia and Bangladesh, the US to Kenya, Gaza and the West Bank, and Afghanistan, Australia to its neighbors Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands, Norway to Brazil, and France to Myanmar and Morocco.  The routes for disbursing foreign aid are hardly a process of global circulation, but provide something like a strategy for promoting the possible circulation of global funds.


Lapham’s Quarterly

The circulation of “aid” is in part a sort of shadow-map that helps shore up and support the  US military’s presence.  The spread of what seems an extended carte blanche to settle the US military in bases abroad has grown steadily since World War II, and has currently grown to spread to over 800 foreign bases in 160 other countries and territories outside the United States–excluding Afghanistan and Iraq, sustained at a cost of over $156 Billion annually.  The current constellation of what Chalmers Johnson called “base world”–a parallel imaging of military extraterritoriality–of which the Pentagon lists not only 174 US “base sites” in Germany, 113 in Japan, and 83 in South Korea, but hundreds more in around 80 countries, including Bahrain, Bulgaria, Colombia, Kenya, and Qatar:  if those countries colored bright red are hosting actual basis, those in purple are hosting US troops, and those in dark blue are countries where the US government is currently negotiating the presence of troops, and the rare spots of a lighter shade of blue mark those with “no evident” US military presence–limited to Mongolia, Tibet, Burma, North Korea and Iran, and the northern and central Africa nations of Libya, Somalia, the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan.  (But one never knows.)


While one might rightly wonder why the army, navy, and marines are based so widely over an “empire of bases,” the cost to the government is no doubt not only expressed in the cost of running the bases that are outposts of Americana where one would think oneself to be geographically removed.

A closer look at those sites of centers of active duty of US soldiers–not including the recent theaters of war of Afghanistan and Iraq–shows a diaspora of bases across the globe that the Department of Defense sustains, allowing the US to have a greater presence worldwide than any actual nation, empire, or people, in seems the underside of globalization, as well as the fantasy of a paranoid extra-national archipelago of active duty that may respond to a vision of global danger:

Active Duty Map

Is foreign economic “aid” somehow a tacitly understood bribe to continue to tolerate such an expansive military presence, or to negotiate with nations for the possibility of securing a future base, or some other sort of economic open-ness?  Is it an excuse to overcome resistance to perpetuating ongoing military presences, or a new way of strategically and cynically waging a global war of chess?

Hosting US Bases

The image of active duty soldiers settled in bases across what might be called Eurasia reveals an often unmapped constellation of sites of settlement, far different from the cities that usually appear on a political atlas or any map.

Active Duty in EurASIA

6.  The World Bank does not primarily speak, despite what its name might assure us, for the world, and may charge usurious fees, but a counter-geography suggest the limits of the pathways Hussein so cleverly mapped from a first-world perspective.

For an unspoken and often ignored “other map” of economic aid, as well as, perhaps, of the “soft money” that allows military and economic expansion, flows not from the World Bank or United States, of course, but from China–all too absent from our own eyes, much as the very same region of the world is so conspicuously absent from maps of Facebook “friending” and “likes” in ways that makes one smirk with superiority at the eerily blacked-out region of a world otherwise illuminated by “friendships” and photo exchange.  The same area not so oddly omitted from the map of global foreign aid, since it is not our aid or the sort of aid sought to be mapped, is actually of course not nearly so passive, or lacking networks of giving.  Although Facebook’s ““Friendship Map” tracks networking, as much as it registers an increasingly vibrant emotional pulse of the digital culture of linking that grips much the globe, leaves a blank space of seep blue or empty lacuna in tracing over 1.5 billion friendships–half of its users have successfully “friended” over 200 other users.  The largest hole of social network gapes over China–though one still can’t really expunge its territory from a map–although the map only reflects individual and collective investment in social media.


Global visualisation of every connection between two people on Facebook

Perhaps the map is far more distorting than admit it to be.

In the more real world of global finances, funding provides an image of governmentally that reigns in the massive economic disequilibria around the world at at time of dramatically curtailed prosperity.  China’s foreign aid reveals distinctly different paths of money to North Korea, Srl Lanka, Sub-Saharan Africa–including Ethiopia and Sierra Leone–and Ecuador; aid is proffered with quite different degrees of riskiness, in ways that suggest the large number of risky bets that China seems to be making in “foreign investment”–described here as something unlike and distinct from “aid” or charitable giving, but as something of a gambit of clearly strategic scope of investing in future markets or potential future sources of food:

China's investment and riskiness of its investing

New York Times

Yet the degree of cumulative investment deserves attention as an alternate visualization of globalization that is not scary, but nonetheless can’t help but be salutary at least in illustrating global imbalances as a counterpoint:
China's Investment, 2005-13:NYT

One can further profitably compare this to the aggregate numbers of Chinese exports and imports go, to see its economy’s global reach, and ask why the range of its “giving” or aid is ommited from the above map–in ways that suggests the degrees of strings attached to it.  The size of exports suggests a complementary set of ties to areas in Europe, the United States, Japan, and South Korea, as well as Australia and South Africa, where a smaller degree of aid arrives–no doubt with invisible strings of its own implicitly attached.

Value of Chinese Imports and Exports Worldwide 2015Value of Chinese Imports and Exports Worldwide 2015New York Times

These somewhat silent and far less evident paths of “giving” and GDP, as well as export values, seek to map a more dynamic image of the current state-of-play of globalization as a sort of state of flux, even if its economic ecosystem is all too often obscured, but also a screen for introspection of the proportions of globalization and its sins.  After all, whoever gives themselves the mantle of global authority most convincingly seems to get to draw the map. Or to decide that it might be time to reconsider the current map of giving, and foreign aid.


Filed under Foreign Aid, globalization, infographics, mapping economic inequalities

Refugee Traffic Scars the Globe’s Surface

Almost any graphic is inadequate to represent the plight of displaced refugees.  The aggregate numbers astound: the sixty countries from which 30,000 people were forced to leave their countries each day over the previous year.  While these numbers reflect only those designated candidates for asylum and refugee status–and do not reflect the extent to which those fleeing from persecution and have expanded so dramatically–the image charts the number of asylum-seekers that grew to over 1.2 million in 2014.  Yet the quantities of those considered for refugee status can hardly be adequately processed, let alone mapped in aggregate–or the recognition of refugee status processed on Europe’s borderlands.  The map of refugee flight in red arcs across a map lacking political frontiers and boundaries seeks to foreground just how frantic the desperate search for pathways to new homes have become, and how wide-ranging these itineraries.  If they seek to provide a sort of negative to the privileged paths of an age of increased air travel and suggest the desperation of forced spatial migration, they silence the actual stories of refugees.

What sort of stories does this simplified map simply omit?  The stories of those journeys are interrupted by death, while they are far smaller, of course remain absent:  the perilous trajectories of individuals fleeing Syria, Iraq, Africa, Indonesia, Afghanistan and Pakistan however risk not only their lives, but increasingly their legal status as they undertake huge geographic migrations in search of new homes elsewhere, traveling by boat, on foot, or along paths promised by human traffickers.  The sleek image, despite its attempted accuracy, shows the intensity of itineraries as embossed on the map as if to disfigure the notion of global unity that runs against the very narrative of global unity implicit in a iconic equidistant azimuthal projection centered on the North Pole which emphasized global harmony as World War II was tried to be forgotten, which as the official flag adopted by the United Nations adopted in October, 1947 promoted an image of global unity:



Harrison Polar Map/Official UN Flag

But the problem of effectively mediating the growing plight of stateless and displaced from “hot-spots” across the world poses not only a problem of the geographic imagination, but of the ethics of mapping.  For the aggregate mapping of those deserving or awarded refugee status not only presses the limits of the data visualization, bound to simplify itineraries of refugees far more fragmented and indirect than can be mapped, but that no data visualization can group the individual stories that the sheer numbers of those displaced by conflict and violence are barely possible to comprehend.  Refugee traffic suggests a level of instability difficult to condense in any map:  and is “traffic” not a fatally flawed metaphor, suggesting a possibility of monitoring or policing, bureaucratically inflected, blind to varied reasons for the rapid growth of refugees?

The hot-spots from which those crossing borders were readily recognized as refugees were increasingly focussed on wealthier countries since before World War II, but the growth in those granted humanitarian status as refugees had already been defined around clear epicenters back in 2007, when millions of the population in Pakistan, Syria, Palestine, and Iran were accorded status, after having crossed borders, as refugees, and large numbers of asylum seekers in the United States, Canada, and Europe had started to grow–the map, which seems an earlier version of the decentered azimuthal projection later chosen by the graphics editor and cartographer at the New York Times, similarly serves to suggest the global nature of a problem largely centered in the Middle East.



The choice of trying to map the data of those declared refugee to show the arcs of their arrival from global hot spots on a decentered azimuthal terrestrial projection aptly maps the crowding of the globally displaced in 2014.  But the choice of transferring the collective itineraries to a global projection–in a sort of perverse mapping of flight paths suggests the most deeply troubling side of global inter-connectedness, and perhaps its deepest source of stress–by scarring the world’s surface in a frenetic criss-cross of arcs.   UNHCR data of the global monitoring of refugees’ origins and points of arrival in new homes served to reveal an aggregate picture of resettlement in “Global Trends in Migration of Refugees” based on the accordance of refugee status, but in doing so erases the complex negotiation of the fate of asylum seekers, as well as the painfulness of the itineraries the globally displaced increasingly suffer.  Is it ethical to hope to draw equivalences of the growing problem those claiming asylum as refugees by showing their arrival along idealized clean arcs?

Are we in danger, moreover, of representing refugees by the designation that western countries who grant them asylum accord them, for lack of complete or adequate data of the dynamics of displacement and mass-migration?

1. The graphic seems apt by rendering a scarred world.  But it also seems an all too cool comment on the violent status quo, in which the number of displaced people raising risks by falling back on a modernist aesthetic that fails to capture the violence of displacement and indeed the placelessness of the refugees:  the distinctive azimuthal projection, whose particular properties orients the world around the common locus of refugees’ eventual destinations, so as to suggest the range of their flights, rendering the range of collective arcs of geographic displacement at a uniform scale.  Although the projection, which echoes the cartographical rendering of a global space in the flag of the United Nations, illustrates the actual global consequences of the heartbreaking tragedy of over fifty million refugees and internally displaced (IDP’s) across the world, their fortunes remain impossible to map, and difficult to visualize.  Indeed, despite the difficulties of mapping those displaced, and problems of protracted displacement that have eroded societies, images often remain far more powerful than maps.


displaced persons


By mapping the aggregate destinations of the displaced by flared arcs, of uniform size, the visualization maps the eventual destinations of refugees, as determined according to the UN’s Refugee Agency, and foregrounds the question of their destination rather than the reasons for their displacement.  The costs of such an omission are considerable.  The question of how to represent displacement, and how to mediate the experience of the refugee, raises questions of how to visualize population within a map.  The record numbers of those forced to flee their homes over the past year raise questions of whether resettlement can ever be enough–and if the tragedy incurred by displacement, without a clear destination and often just beyond the borders of the country one fled, trapped in war zones, or stranded in temporary settlements, aggregate trends of displacement seem oddly removed from refugees’ experience.

For while the smooth arcs of geographic relocation data are compelling, they transform the often desperate flight of refugees by an aesthetics of minimalism that rather reduces the scope of the spatial displacement that the terrifying numbers of persecuted refugees experience, and foregrounds the sites at which the displaced arrive–perhaps to remind us of the distance of the United States’ retention of an annual ceiling of resettling 70,000 refugees–and not the unrepresentable scope of the violence of spatial dislocation and tragedy of searing social disruptions.  The deepest difficulty to represent is the precipitous slide toward poverty, hunger, and poor health care of most refugees, whose arcs of travel are both far from smooth, but so rocky and economically destabilizing that the challenges of orienting oneself to its crisis are indeed immense.  And they only begin to chart the number of internally displaced and causes and scale of displacement–and the lack of political will that protracted displacement and flight have created on the ground, in their abstraction of refugee flows.  For while the distribution of internal displacement challenges one to create a compelling graphic, the dynamics of displacement by the Norwegian Internal Displacement Monitoring Center across some sixty countries seem so difficult to embody–or process–that to demand clearer visualization to comprehend the scope of internal displacement of those who are rarely granted asylum–or are accorded the so desired status of refugees.



In its gesturing to the equidistant azimuthal projection of the United Nations, the visualization of refugee traffic evokes the clear ideals of the UN as an institution in its refusal to privilege a specific geographical centering.


The focus in the visualization on UNHCR data of resettlement emphasizes a narrative of resettlement, even some sixty years after UNHCR first directed global attention to the “World Refugee Year” in 1959, with hopes “to encourage additional opportunities for permanent refugee solutions through voluntary repatriation, resettlement or integration, on a purely humanitarian basis.”  For in showing clean arcs that deliver the displaced, analogously to a frenetic set of flight paths, collapsing the time of one year, the tragedy of the unsettled are oddly ignored.  For although the flared arcs on the projection effectively pose questions to the reader about the impact of refugees’ arrival in Europe and wealthier countries, it shifts the question provocatively from the human rights abuses and disasters which provoke such flight–and ignores the terrifyingly young age of so many refugees, over half of whom are less than eighteen.

In seeking to grasp the scope of statelessness and displacement, and the psychic as well as economic questions of displacement, can’t we do better?


2.  Representing the global crisis of the displaced is by no means simple, and data visualizations are often inadequate to represent the travails of the refugee.  But although the movement of the displaced mirrors what UNHCR determined were the destinations of the displaced in 2014, the minimalist projection of terrestrial expanse oddly and dissonantly removes them from the humanitarian crises that created their displacement:  the countries noted in the terrestrial projection recedes into the background behind bright flared arcs that trace in aggregate the migratory paths refugees actually took in ways almost abstracted from experience–and in ways that may effectively unintentionally serve to diminish their plight by expressing it in an aggregate.  While an alternating focus on Southern Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and Burma where many have been forced to flee their homes can afflict the most clear-headed with a temporary case of Attention Deficit Disorder as they puzzle at the multiple crises that convulse refugees to flee, leaving millions of Iraqis (2+), Syrians (3.2+), and Rohyingya to remain stateless, their flight is rarely linear, and the omission of the uncertainty of any refugee’s path or flight is troubling.

If the global visualization illustrates the increased intensity of the problem of displaced refugees over the previous year, even as it tracks the scars that divide it.  By using a set of specific points to another on a globe centered on where the greatest refugee traffic occurred, the data vis represents actual distances to countries of asylum, displaying pathways of asylum refugees took on a map of accurate distances, and traffic of truly global scope.  Although the densely crowded red arcs obscure much of France, Germany, and other sites of destination for the displaced as if to exaggerate an influx of to Europe, they illustrate a growing recognition that the scale of human displacement is a global crisis–as much as a crisis of resettling refugees.

The array of intersecting red arcs in the map underscores the proximity of an inter-related world, and provocatively foregrounds the increasingly global scope of a multiplying crisis of displaced persons that have come to scar much of the world’s surface.  The problem of how to synthesize the diverse local experiences displacing increasing refugees across the globe both internally and to other countries is resolved by using UNHCR data to map the growing traffic of the displaced that the we will increasingly be challenged to come to terms. Yet what of the image of interconnectedness that they reveal?  While foregrounded in an equidistant projection that renders evident the symbolic unity of around a nexus of departure of refugees from Africa, Syria, and Ukraine who arrive in Europe, the crimson arcs literally cut across the image of coherent harmony emphasized in the azimuthal projection, by locating sites at uniform distances to emphasize its unified image of the inhabited world–the same reasons it was adopted in different form in the flag of the United Nations–which also downplays the very national differences and frontiers more often inscribed in terrestrial maps, using an equidistant azimuthal projection of the world centered on its pole to project an ideal of global harmony.

The data visualization “Global Trends of Migration” foregrounds a marred world, however.  In it, the sites of refugees’ arrival is often even rendered illegible, disorientingly, by blotches of solid red created by converging flared red arcs.  Was there a somewhat alarmist decision to flare the ends of these arcs at the sites of the “arrival” of refugees, as has been suggested elsewhere by Martin Grand Jean?  For Grand Jean observes that in doing so, the concentration of apparent endings attract greater visual attention than the sites from which persons are displaced, or the intensity of the displacement:  we hide our eyes from the atrocities, in short, and the true nature of the crisis and humanitarian disaster, perhaps in ways informed by UNHCR data on the need to better process refugee flow.   One might go farther in this critique:  for in flaring such endpoints, the image not only oddly downplays the sites of emergency from which they seek asylum, and the unmitigated tragedy of those who remain displaced, but conveys a sense that the flights are smooth.

To be sure, the very term “traffic” that recurs to describe the “Trends in Global Migration of Refugees” seems a bit of an oblique misnomer.  It almost obfuscates the experience of those who were only recently forced to flee their homes, as much as render them for the viewer.  For the elegant aggregation of such a uniquely tragic dataset may not fully come to terms with the growing global tragedy of the apparently unmitigated spread of refugees from an expanding range of sites–and the steep human rights challenges the exponential expansion of global or internal exiles creates.  Although the attempt to synthesize UNHCR data and map those flows offer one of the clearest tools by which to process, comprehend and synthesize the rapid expansion of individuals who were forcibly displaced over the past year, and come to term with that expansion.  But it hardly comes to terms with the desperation of their travails or the difficulty of their departures.  Indeed, by covering much of Europe in busy red blotches it disarmingly foregrounds and describes the arrival of refugees who have successfully left their countries–more than the mechanics of their displacement.  And there is a sense, almost paranoiac, and to be resisted, that the arrival of these streams of refugees who enter the Eurozone almost threaten to cancel its identity.


Cancelled Europe?


What is lost in the image’s busily crowded surface is perhaps made up for by the frenetic intensity it uses to ask us to confront such trajectories of tragedy and desperation.  But as an illustration, the elegance of the visualization seems to mislead viewers through its concentration on a geometry of arrival–and the smoothness with which it invests the desperation of forced departures. Despite its impressive effects, there seem multiple reservations about the possibility of creating an adequate data visualization.  In translating the tragic dataset of forced migrations as a point-to-point correspondence, its simplification approximates the wide geographic itineraries of that the globally displaced have been forced to seek–and understates the tortuously complex paths they actually followed.

Indeed, tensions are implicit in the stark modernist aesthetics of rendering the paths of refugees and the global imperative to address the pressing refugee problems that raise questions of the ethics of mapping the displaced.  The cool modernist aesthetics of “Trends in Global Migration” obscure the messiness of refugees’ own lives.  In recent years, the Refugee Highway and others have sought to address in foregrounding the global “hotspots” of mass-migration–by combining qualitative and quantitative data.  They have tried to reveal what open routes exist for those seeking asylum and capturing the resourcefulness of the refugee–noting possible destinations of asylum, and sites of resettlement, or differentiating between routes taken in fleeing by land and sea to help viewers appreciate the scope of the refugee disaster.  In the image below, Refugee Highway reveals the presence of airplanes over industrialized nations where more refugees are apt to settle or seek asylum suggests the steep symbolic liabilities of Wallace’s stark “Global Trends.”


refugee highway map Refugee Highway-Legend The Refugee Highway

Another alternative visualization, proposed by Grand Jean on the basis of the very same UNHCR 2014 database, places less visual emphasis on the sites of refugees’ arrival, or sites of eventual asylum, but use similar lines as the red arcs of migration, apt for suggesting bloody scars  but less illuminating of the proportions of displaced and, as Grand Jean nicely notes, not weighted in any way, so that the 6,000 Mexican refugees that arrive in Canada are illustrated in an equivalent manner to the million refugees from Syrian territory that have arrived in Lebanon.  Gran Jean has generously proposed an alternative visualization that salutary in varying the thickness of lines that denote refugees’ displacement from sites of humanitarian crisis that confronts the limits of doing justice to the representation of displacement, sacrificing the modernist aesthetics of the image to ensure its greater readability:


Martin Grand Jean

The attention Grand Jean returns to the sites of displacement can be easily rendered in ways that distinguish the different regions and countries from which the 14.37 refugees UNHCR registered have sought asylum, using color to start to distinguish the sites from which refugees were displaced–and start to diminish the information overload of the data visualization of this global crisis.

actual areas

Martin Grand Jean 


There is value to imitating the information overload created by the expanding crisis of global refugees, but it raises questions of the ethics of mapping disasters.  Much as it is difficult to comparatively map the multiplications of centers of forcible displacement, it is difficult to even heuristically approximate the varied qualitative circumstances of the world of the refugee–as much as one would like to grasp the extent of the desperation of exile from the boundaries and neighborhoods of one’s former home.


2.  The elegant economy of the jaw-dropping visualization in the Times of the refugee crisis compellingly transposes the aggregation of annual refugees to illustrate its deeply global nature.  The crisis of those forcibly displaced on a symbolic level by the harmony of uniform spatial relations–in the mode of early modern cordiform maps–although, of course, those thin red lines of scarification disrupt whatever harmony exists across the globe, despite the attention that it calls to its inter-relations, in the manner of the polar azimuthal projection surrounded by two olive branches of peace that was designed as an emblem of the United Nations to suggest the proportional representation of the continents, and lack of privileging one area of the world by Donal McLaughlin, who interest in the transparency of visual communication led him to propose its design in 1946 as a seal for the UNO.

The popularity of the visualization of “Global Trends” lies in its success in cleanly sorting a significantly large dataset in a readily legible terms in ways that insist on the proximity of accumulated crises dispersed across the globe in isolation from one another–but which affect the world and demand a global response.




One unarticulated if implicit institutional message of the equidistant polar projection in the “Global Trends” graphic is that it captures the pressure that the displaced place on the ideals expressed by the equidistant polar azimuthal projection featured on the UN flag.

Even if the very globalization of a refugee crisis makes it hard to focus on the status of those forcibly displaced or the context of collective hot-spots from which folks have fled, so clearly does it abstract individual itineraries of flight from their local contexts, the intensity of its busy red lines captures the overwhelming image of desperation, even if limited to those who have found asylum–not the refugee camps clustering on the borders of Syria, Sudan and Myanmar–it captures the intensity of forced migrations worldwide, if not the circumstances of their internal displacements or their deaths in transit and at sea.  The poor and often perilous conditions of the camps and settlements are left off of the map, as it were, as are the circumstances of ocean travel often brokered by human traffickers.

For the greatest lie and fabrication in the narrative of Global Trends of Displacement is the illusion it perpetuates that all refugees possess and have a destination–and indeed that all refugees arrive.   The extreme unmessiness of rendering the actual tragedy of refugees’ itineraries in purified form with a coolness worthy of Le Corbusier or Eero Salonen frames the crisis of refugees as if tracking airplanes’ movement or allocating resources.  To an extent, this is the result of the UNHCR dataset, which focuses on the arrival in camps or countries of asylum, rather than displacement or the camps were refugees and fleeing persons congregate along the borders of nearby countries.  But the visualization deriving from the data provides readers with a quite misleading illustration of the crisis at hand.  For in concealing local details, they obscure both the individual stories of sacrifice as well as the conditions or scarcities that has driven such a steep expansion of fleeing across what have often increasingly become quite shaky and undefined border-lines, readily renegotiated in theaters of war.


Sudanese refugees mappedUNHCR, Refugees from Southern Sudan by mid-December, 2013


Rather, the image created communicates an impression of cleanly engineered arcs of geographical mobility and direct paths to resettlement.  Unlike earlier visualizations, the elegant red arcing lines adopted in “Global Trends” present the UNHCR data as if to suggest that all refugees arrive–even though the dataset is of course only about those who do seek asylum and resettle elsewhere, and predominantly in countries far removed from their homelands.  This narrative of spatial displacement may obscure a deeper set of narratives of dislocation.


Global Trends in Displacement: Destinations New York Times

One sacrifices a sense of the local in the arching red lines in the gripping aggregation of global refugees over the past year in “Global Trends,” also pictured the header to this post.  The data vis indeed broached the difficulties of comprehending what has increasingly and ultimately become a global crisis at the end of an age of empire in readily comprehensible terms.  Although the paths of refugees’ flights threatens to muddy the specific travails from which folks are forced to flee in the data visualization, as well as their specific circumstances and travails, it synthesizes and processes the almost unsustainable streams of forced flights from refugee hot spots by foregrounding the actual routes of displacement–while misleadingly suggesting that all refugees found future homes.

Indeed, it maps the unmappable by mapping the pathways of those forcibly displaced:  yet of the 60 million displaced globally, the map focusses on the 14 million (almost a quarter of those displaced worldwide) who have left their countries in 2014 alone, offering what is probably an under-estimation of the encyclopedia of travails that can never, at another level, map or synthesize–as if the routes of fleeing can ever be adequately represented by being sketched on the perfectly engineered arcs akin to the smoothly engineered pathways of multiple airplane flights along which a very different demographic travels.  Refugees are of course unlikely to experience such travel, more characteristic of readers of the Times, who would surely be prone to recognize the map as a sad perversion of global flight paths, converging on Eruopean capitals, the United States, Canada, and Australia.

Global Trends in Displacement: DestinationsNew York Times

One feels only awe at the overwhelming nature this sort of dataset, itself difficult and dizzying to process because it offers little real cue for orienting oneself to the complex totality of narratives it collectively encodes.  Whether the augmentation of refugees worldwide can be seen as a quantifiable crisis–and removed from human terms and individual costs–is a question that cannot be here addressed.  But the conversion of the crisis into human flows is a compelling way to try to come to terms with how we’ve come to inhabit the world in rather chilling ways, by plotting some of the data from the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees on a global projection centered on the primary areas of regional crisis–not without posing the question of why such a global focus of the refugee crisis exists.  The nexus of the refugee “crisis” is so widely spatially distributed, indeed, to leave its “focus” dizzying as one tries to better internally process the extent of displacement worldwide:


detail refugees map New York Times


3.  The frenetic business of the long distance “traffic” pictured on the global map can also be reorganized and viewed, or disaggregated, piecemeal, luckily,  in order to make some sense of the terrifying abundance–or obesity?–of the disturbing dataset whose aggregation reveals the close relations between countries in an age of globalization, if it cannot threaten to obscure the dramatic narratives of individual experience.  The data is condensed into misleadingly orderly (if dizzyingly distracting) mesh of intersecting red lines, arcing over the earth’s surface and boundaries–as if to capture the global nature of the crisis, but which painfully erase the multiple individual narratives of struggle, internal displacement, and blossoming of the unplanned cities of refugee camps, and the different material and environmental constraints against which refugees have to contend and struggle. The comforting illusion that each refugee has a destination–or endpoint–ignore the improvised settlements now dot maps of Jordan, Turkey, Chad and South Sudan, and hold some two million souls, or the deaths of refugees in transit or at sea–runs against the demand for an adequate dynamic map of their own, as if in a sort of reverse map of sites of human habitation inscribed on maps.

Such a map would describe dislocation in greater detail than the valiant ESRI “story map” of those refugee camps administered by the UNHCR, whose slippy map invites one to inspect the numbers of displaced in different camps, but stands at a significant remove from their actual circumstances or experiences of displacement of the story it purports to tell.

efugee camps ESRI Fifty Most Populous Refugee Camps (an ESRI story-map) ArbatDarfur Refugee Camp in Chad Arbat_Transit_Camp_3-3-2014 Arbat Transfer Camp for Syrian Refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan

4.  Could one rather include in such a map variables such as the length of time required for transit from each country, the amount of time required for transit, or the possibility of making such travel–all potential ways to represent the ordeal of displacement in ways that viewers might understand?  Or could one indicate the violence of the displacement in a quantitative way?

Indeed, the focus of the data vis on the routes of migration that refugees take runs against the widely accepted and reported truth that the number of internally displaced persons has expanded far beyond the growth of refugees seeking asylum in recent years–also reported by Sergio Peçanha–if the growth of IDP’s worldwide has surely increased the desperation of those refugees who leave countries of origin.

IDP's New York Times

The greatest single lie that this elegant map of refugees across the world tells in its distribution of a dataset is that all refugees have a destination to which the flee that can be mapped–a lie that the red arcs that imitate the paths of air traffic encourage.  For the paths of those fleeing are of course rarely so removed from the ground or so truly globalized in their dispersion.  In addition, there is a shift of attention from the sites where a truly unmanageable set of crises for refugees exists to the density of points of arrival in European countries as France, Germany, England, Italy, and Sweden, as well as Australia, Canada and the US–all rendered by but a single point or nexus of arrival, or destination–and often obscured by clotted red lines.  Does this detract the readers’ attention from the sites of humanitarian emergency that prompted the rush of refugees? The crowded the image evokes the image of something like a blood splatter, the result of the expansion of the intensity of combat in multiple theaters that, after all, set the mechanisms of displacement in motion, which the practice of aggregation erased.  In ways that imitate the The Refugee Project’s attempt to map arcs of resettlement of those seeking asylum since 1975 in interactive fashion within a single globe, the density of lines that converge in Europe and elsewhere suggest the deeply linked question of the global multiplication of forcibly removed refugees, and the proliferation of a forcible statelessness across so much of the modern world.


Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 12.10.41 PMThe Refugee Project 


But, on the other hand, the visualization’s immediate popularity, registered by wide retweeting, responds to the cognitive difficulty–if not impossibility–of coming to terms in a clear-headed manner with the dizzying multiplication of growing numbers of refugees and internally displaced people in our increasingly destabilized world. There is considerable clarity in how the orderly arcs mirror the readily recognizable form of a map of destinations of flights, if there is something truly odd in how they represent the terrifyingly troubled transit of peoples in times of war.  Perhaps the map aptly captures in symbolic fashion the desperate flight from regions in its numbers alone, acting like a sort of blood splatter map on the world–although one where the wounds seem to lie in those countries that receive refugees, rather than the sites of the violence that provoked their transit.

For the greatest difficulty with the data visualization remains the remove of its narrative content from the subjective experiences of the refugees than the absorption of refugees in their new countries, and the apparent equivalence that it draws between both the proportion of refugees or the experiences of refugees from different countries.  Hence, the conspicuous inclusion of numbers of departed whose final destinations were a specific country and the foregrounding of the names of those countries that were most likely destinations in the developed world–the United States, Canada, France, and Sweden among them–several countries were a sharply xenophobic ultra-right has been recently recognized as on the rise. Take, for instance, the dispersion or draining of Syrian populations, which despite its orderly symmetry offers only a stripping of data to approximate the ongoing struggles on its disintegrating borders.  During the recent Civil War, some 11.6 million people, almost half of its entire population, have been displaced, half arriving in Egypt, and only a relatively fortunate few arriving in European or industrialized/westernized nations.  Representing the length of time required for resettlement would at least be a surrogate and index for the nature of the experience of refugees that would be a possibly more ethical model for mapping displacement than the dispersion of the Syrian population on simple arcs–without notation of how many displaced Syrians remain, and omit the distortion suggested below of a smoothly engineered migration from refugee camps.


Syrian refugee displacement New York Times


5.  The infographic maps but one corner of the dilemma of global refugees.  One way that the infographic must be read is in dialogue of the as-yet limited reactions of advanced economies to the growing global refugee crisis, to be sure, at a time when it may make less sense to retain the attitudes of protectionism and fears of immigration, evident in the expansion of only 70,000 refugees to the United States during Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 on the basis of “humanitarian concerns” as “in the national interest,” and the retention of limits of admissions in accordance with clear ceilings for each region.  For does such an imposition of such ceilings come to terms with the global desperation felt by the displaced?

admissions of refugees--refugee resettlement assistance FY 2015

White House

There is an obligation to come to terms with the steep fears of immigration and better help readers better wrestle with the plight of the displaced.

An untold understory of the infographic that is less evident in the image used in this post’s header is the considerable concentration of a huge proportion of refugees–some 85% by the count of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees–in one specific geographic region, and the lack of resources that are effectively able to be devoted to these refugees’ fates.  (And this may well be an underestimation of population flows among the internally displaced.)  The majority congregate in regions running from Turkey to Southeast Asia, past Ethiopia to Kenya and the Central African Republic, although one imagines that the displaced in Ukraine are just absent from the dataset, and less able to be accurately measured by the UN numbers.  The region populated by millions of displaced is circled by dotted lines below.  In each of these regions, most relatively impoverished, refugees are often exchanged among countries with limited resources to process compelling human needs–for example, Ethiopia holds  665,000 refugees from Somalia and South Sudan–where they are bound to press further upon limited existing resources and fragile economies.

85% refugees


What will be the result of these interconnections–and whether they won’t demand far greater global interconnectedness–is not clear.

But the ongoing expansion of refugees in areas where there is no clear governmental or administrative organization will prove especially difficult to map adequately, despite the compelling nature of the “Recent Trends” visualization, such trends are poised to expand in future years, especially from Ukraine as well as Syria and Myanmar.

Global Trends in Displacement: Destinations New York Times

It seems most likely that, at some level, the data visualization of the destinations of refugees as seeking asylum from their country of origin unconsciously records how far we have come from the optimism of picturing the possibility of global unity the United Nations auspiciously hoped to inaugurate in 1946–by the agency which compiled the UNHCR database.



6.  There is a significant difficulty, of course, in mapping refugees and the increased clustering of camps that they create in so-called demilitarized border zones.  For each image condenses multiple narratives that one wishes one could tease out, but confronts an image in which one sees limited apparent possibility of resolution save further instability. South Sudan possessed some of the greatest emergency of the refugees of modern times and the twenty-first century both in the some 700,000+ asylum-seeking refugees in neighboring countries at most recent count and one and a half million plus internally displaced persons (IDP’s) within its fragile boundaries, many driven by intense food shortages as well as by an increasingly militarized and fearful situation:  almost a third of the country’s population lack food.  Emergency refugee activities have haven mapped in South Sudan from 2012.  Even as the subsequent refugee crisis generated in the Syrian Civil War has further pressed credulity, South Sudan exemplifies a refugee situation spun out of control with no clear resolution, before which one stares at the map agape,–almost conscious of the continuing inadequacy of ever resolving its narrative in the immediate future.  Back in 2012, UNHCR helpfully mapped refugee settlements (camps) and clusters of individual refugees–denoted in the second map of South Sudan below by inverted triangles; refugee settlements are shown by pink houses–spread both to camps in Ethiopia, and less organized communities on the borders of poor (and undeveloped) countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo or Central African Republic, states with their resources already spread thin.


images-16 Refugee Camps and Refuggees around South Sudan Aug 2012 2012 Sudan map legend

UNHCR By 2013, the number of displaced was combined with arrivals of those displaced from nearby areas and states:




By 2014, about three-quarters of a million displaced persons were displaced and 4.9 million were in need of assistance as the borders continued to be particularly permeable and fear drove displaced persons out of the country:




The continued displacement of refugees has only grown considerably during 2015, with increased fighting in South Sudan and the Upper Nile states, at the same time as water and sanitation has continued to deteriorate across the region.  Spurring the possibility for increased refugees, food insecurity of food has grown–as food grows more scarce–in ways that the visualization leaves silent but might provide a telling under-map of the flow of refugees across increasingly fragile borders, in situation maps that foreground departure and the failure of containment within civil society.  Such maps obscure the systemic problems that are bound to make the tally of refugee counts only tic higher over time, perhaps, which might be revealed in deeper layers to suggest the levels of instability that afflict the region. One telling map to compare reveals the increasingly imperiled aquifers and drastically declining availability groundwater.

If we consider the drought to be located in California’s central Valley–a thin orange strip by the Pacific Ocean–the decrease in groundwater NASA satellites have mapped over the past decade quite dramatically extends across the Sudd Basin and Lower Chad Basin in Africa and the entire Nubian Aquifer System and the Congo Basin–as it groundwater shortages has drastically grown across the Arabian aquifer and Indus Basin over the same time.  Water is not the sole issue here, of course, but the unrest that scarcity provokes demands mapping, and GIS visualization, as a layer below the civil society, which in much of Africa and regions without and which never saw the need for infrastructures of water transport is no doubt particularly acute.


Global Water Storage 2003-13 legend UC Irvine


The consequences of depleted aquifers and groundwater across the Lake Chad Basin, Sudd Basin and the Nubian Aquifer System (NAS)–the greatest body of fresh water in the Nile basin,  and Congo Basin have provoked a catastrophe of global proportions, while we returned to the possibilities of the contagious spread of Ebola across the world as if it were the sole apocalypse on our mental radar for much of the past year. The rise of fatal–or near-fatal–the expansion of those attempting to flee food shortages and declining economies in Africa have appeared in or occasioned increasing news reports from the western media, as Italians have called in increasingly strident tones for all of Europe to turn its attention to focus on the flight of refugees in the Mediterranean ocean–which the Italian navy can barely respond to in adequate manner, and create a web across the Mediterranean simplified in the red routes below.  Already the most “deadly stretch of water for refugees and migrants” in 2012, the refugee crisis intensified in 2014–often encouraged by human traffickers who deceptively promise perilous passage that is often not followed through, perhaps making this current year–2015–the most deadly in recent memory for those attempting the crossing in ships as they flee humanitarian disasters in Libya in ways that have only begun to be quantified and mapped.






85188.adapt.676.2 National Geographic


The complex story of tragedy and loss that the map conceals is difficult to communicate in conventional cartographical forms, as the each circle represents the suspected or confirmed loss of human passengers.


mediterranean-460-1 New York Times


One understory to this migration, without doubt, is the huge refugee crisis across the Sub-Saharan continent, where 15 million have been displaced in the past year alone:


15 million displaced in sub-Saharan Africa

The “refuge flows” are oddly almost not with a human face, as if they seem a triangular exchange of goods.  As we map refugee traffic in a manner that suggests that the flows of people are removed from a dynamics of struggle on the ground, but guided by an invisible hand or able to be imagined as a coherent network of flow, as if they at times arrive and depart from the same place, we lose a sense of the human costs of the deep scars that they draw over the surface of the inhabited world.


Global Trends in Displacement: Destinations But these overlapping and crisscrossed waves of displacement, if terribly difficult to disentangle, are compressed into so many misleadingly orderly arcs:  their stark form and geometric curvature elided or erasef the struggle, or indeed desperation, that we know companies the experiences of all refugees, and show an image of migration that may be as good as it gets. It surely sends an alarm about the status and state of the stateless refugees forced to flee their homes that forces us to negotiate our own relation to the changed face of the world.  But its curved red lines decisively and assertively arrogate the numbers of those who have sought asylum into smoothly completed arcs in an oddly unproblematic way, given the scarcity of solutions at hand.


Filed under data visualizations, global refugees, immigration, infographics, refugee crisis, refugees, Syrian refugees

Alternative Metrics of America’s Divided Economies #2

The ballyhooed shift of the economy from the industrial to the technological and financial sectors seems like it conceals the deep shift in the geography of the working male:  while the anthropocentric focus of the data is not meant to be gender-biased, it reveals a steady decline of the “working man”–an astounding tripling of men not working since the late 1960s.  The expansion of those not working reflects in roughly broad brushstrokes parallels a decline of the industrial workforce, but is also an interesting metric to map the transformation of the nation in ways that concepts of the Recession or failures of job-production cannot describe.  The terrain of men between twenty-five and fifty-four without work–a rough measure of adulthood and able-bodiedness, of which even setting traditional parameters, provide a contrast with the categories of a landscape of the past,  and suggests the shifting place of the working age man in American society–if not the relation between man and work, and the absence of work’s spatial distribution in the United States.

Recent visualizations of the decline of a national workforce seem more like conversation stoppers from which there is little prospect of relief or escape than invitations for thought.  While what we talk about when we view a data visualization is dictated by the parameters of the snapshot it declares, the landscape of the out of work in America is on the front burner of most data visualizers, who have been competing, in the manner of so many actuaries, to present the best picture of American decline.  Fear grips the visualization of the drying up of work, which seems extracted or deflated in ways that create a new sense of hills and valleys in the topographic maps of the country:  what were once centers of the economy are transformed in the economic landscapes of unemployment that they present, providing new contours that we are asked to assess as if it is time to assess the place where we are at through the effects that the arrival of the “Great Recession” from Sea to Shining Sea–and the centers of work that continue to exist across the Home of the Brave.

Before examining the maps of those out of work in America, the contours of such a map suggests one of the backgrounds for the reception of the internet economy and digital revolution that may reveal the special appeal of the somewhat illusory notion that the web promises the coming generation of a wave of new jobs.  While the internet has been blessed as a solace to the out of work, transformed by alchemy of the world wide web into blissed-out surfers putting their time into online betting and social networking sites, net advocates insist on potential economic benefits of the new cultural commons of “prosumers” that lies on the horizons of our backlit lives.  The foreseeing of a massive expansion of the DIY economy as part of a “Third Industrial Revolution” that is to be unleashed on the internet will not only provide a basis for reunderstanding the energy grid; for many, new sites of trading and commerce–on Etsy or other virtual marketplaces–has spontaneously generated claims for the benefits of such new platforms for marketing creativity that will work to make folks feel valued and great about both their “work” and themselves.  Yet Sue Halpern found these claims quite creepy in their unstated underside, not often mentioned by enthusiasts such as Jeremy Rifkin who prophesies a Third Industrial Revolution of clean energy and renewable resources across the globe:   for the link between the internet and a new “energy paradigm” in the new industrial revolution of an “energy internet,” may well augur a day when workers may not only be increasingly replaced by machines, as the internet decouples productivity from human work, but, more insidiously, e-commerce creates the illusion of productive engagement:  “a do-it-yourself subculture is thriving, and sharing cars, tools, houses, and other property is becoming more common, [but] it is also true that much of this activity is happening under duress as steady employment disappears.”  (While 60 million consumers interact with Etsy, Amanda Hess found that 65% of sellers made more than $100 last year.  Compared to the 5,000,000 jobs that Slate‘s Associate Editor Chris Wilson mapped as vanishing from 2008 to 2009 presented a devastating picture of job-loss, barely compensated by talk of the growth of online sellers and small-scale Amazonians.)  This new sense of “work” is not only based on the distractions of web-surfing and the rise of private activities completed during working time in offices, sometimes up to average time spent on private activities at work is between 1.5 and three hours a day., and even the conclusion that 70 percent of internet traffic to pornographic sites during what seem working hours, and the majority of online purchases (up to 60%) from a similar 9-5 timeframe.  But the illusory jobs and increased appearance of engagement that the internet nourishes seems as important to acknowledge in describing the radical redefinition of work in America.  The apparent addiction to such “involuntary slacking” seems to demand attention as an important counterpart to the shifting geography of work in the United States.

What happened in the dire picture of a loss of five million jobs that he presented of national decline that began from roughly when, in what one can’t feel is a coincidental metric, President Obama took office, and we faced our greatest threat of economic downturn in many years?


The image of economic implosion, or decline in job growth in 2008, two years after the Recession had officially begun, offers a map of the points of local vulnerability to job losses that contrasts with the earlier maps of job growth, and seems like a job-loss virus, spreading from centers of past urban growth, in ways that augur something like a national decline:  the northeast and northern California are deep red, as is the former industrial midwest around Detroit, and the Northwest doesn’t seem to be doing better.  Texas, almost alone with Vermont, for some reason, has spots of blue.  It is not surprising that the Wired map was quickly taken up by Fox News:  the spread of scarlet sink-holes of job-depletion across the continent, radiating out into its surrounding waters, offers a vision of apocalypticism that “others” the continent from a geographic land mass.  The medium of the data visualization offers a snapshot of the status quo sending shivers down one’s spine, jointly suggesting a draining of jobs from the national economy and raising questions about its future.

The image is striking, and drowning in large circles of red, denoting job loss, with small spots of bright blue standing like beacons of hope, but a larger scale image of the shifting growth of unemployment rates over the decade from a Public Policy research team, Mathematica, using statistics from the Census and Dept. of Labor, crafts a far more finely grained picture of national losses from 2000 to 2013, less mired in a feeling of depression and more legible both it int texture and county-by-county specifics that might tell us more:

County Unemployemnt Rate

even if the snapshot map taken in a single year, as 2010, when unemployment was high, revealed a dire deal indeed:

2010 USA

The flat opacity that these data visualizations track, rather than inviting us to contemplate a graphic prospectus of the future, provide a snapshot of relative poverty before which we stand aghast.

The internet has arrived not only as the time-suck from productivity that we’ve all, unconsciously, suspected, but with the promise of a possibility for fashioning new jobs that would lift us from the Great Recession.  Despite the deepest claims that internet commerce provides the opportunity to unleash a new level of contact with consumers and wave of independent sales, it may well be, although it is quite hard to confirm, that the amount of time spent online is something somewhat correlated to the new appearance of folks who are taking steps to leave the workforce, and find solace online, removed from the workplace environments that can provide a somewhat comforting cocoon.  The hope of Jeremy Rifkin that Halpern wryly characterizes as a “vision that people will occupy themselves with more fulfilling activities like making music and self-publishing novels once they are freed from work” exposes the possibility that the internet offers an odd outlet for dropping out of the marketplace.  For while it may be but a coincidence, the shifting geography of being out-of-work, the long-term decline of the American workforce found an interesting outlet for self-promotion and self-fashioning on the internet that Jeremy Rifkin, Lawrence Lessig, and others promise.  But including this image of the economy, or even its economic potential, is almost seems inversely proportioned in its difficult to map compared to the trumpet its benefits.

For the expansion of such self-made businesses or “trade venues” on the web parallel a search to innovate by folks who have been marginalized from or forced to leave the labor force in ways that our statistics of unemployment as reported widely do not fully capture–we must begin by taking stock of the fact that a broad measure of unemployment rose .  To begin to get a handle on our national quagmire of the out work, we need to compute alternative measures of unemployment, however, noting the depressing picture including a broad measure of unemployment computed by the Labor Department to include marginally attached workers–which rose far more than official unemployment rate defined as those looking for work, as Brendan Saloner noted in 2010–even if that rate has now declined to below 6% once again, rather than not budging from 9.6% as was then the case.  The distribution of such a broad measure of underemployment (or unemployment) had striking national variabilities in 2010, focussing on metropolitan areas alone.


Moving a bit forward in time, the New York Times and Economist noted the importance of considering regional disparities in the “Great Recession” by 2011, noting areas where unemployment crested to 20%–

Geograph of a Recession

–which boasted marked declines in unemployment across much of the country for the first time, save in those places deeply effected by the housing bubble, including California, Florida and Nevada, and those regions whose ingrown unemployment was brought by declining industry, such as Pennsylvania or Indiana:

from June '10

New York Times

The picture of relative discrepancies in the specific areas where national employment rates crested above 20% in some areas, or unemployment stubbornly refused to decrease, presents a picture can be interestingly fit into the long-term decline of the workforce in America, the journalist and historian Yoni Appelbaum has argued.  The long-term decline matches a growing share of the male population who need help or are paying taxes, Appelbaum found, which has wrought considerable social changes in our attitudes toward work and workplaces, independently from the “Great Recession.”  Indeed, the shifting geography of the out of work between the ages of 25 and 54 across the nation  provides a similar distribution of deep valleys.  The nation-wide rise in the numbers of out of work men raise interesting questions about what folks are doing with their time, and what sustains attention at a time of disengagement from the economic marketplace.  Men are not, here, taken as the metonymy for human, but describe a deep change in the status quo which may well suggest the feeling of remove from those technological sectors where the economy has grown, and goes beyond a decline in job creation in specific areas across the United States, that may reflect a geography of desperation and alienation independent from the creation of further jobs.  While the prognosis is not warranted from the map alone, the rise of such out of work men, who either elect to leave the workforce or adopt the classification as disabled, creates a distinct culture in specific cities and regions unlike one of competition for existing jobs, that may pose deep threats for the economy and indeed for public health.

While somewhat like the long-term unemployment rates in its complexure, the distinct nature of the pockets of out of work men are removed from the labor market, and present a topography of what might be called disengagement, if one would not rather use terms without moral judgement. While the two issues are closely tied, the specificity of the map of men out of work map seems striking in its greater demographic specificity.

Men Not Working Map

New York Times/Yoni Applebaum

In ways that seem paralleled by the number of women who are leaving the workforce of the same ages, and to illustrate a deep shift of the culture of work, “working, in America, is in decline,” as Appelbaum put it.  Is this major and ongoing shift in how we relate to work, deeply linked to the rise of the disaffection of many from an existing labor market sen too removed from one’s own self-valuation, or perhaps below one’s competence, the expansion of those outside the workforce, male and female–the non-employed, including disabled or with compensation, make up over an eight of the entire adult US population, include students and those retired, but only 25% are classified as unemployed.


Almost independently from “unemployment” per se, the sector of such non-employed between ages 25 and 54 seems particularly unhealthy for the nation, and difficult to explain–as is their apparent geographic clustering.  Only just over half say that their jobs ended with the last recession of December 2007 (61%), but an eighth (13%) claim never to have had a full-time job, suggesting that they are probably on the younger end of the age spectrum.

Why not work, despite the clear adverse psychological and personal effects of such an apparent decision or perceived inability to change one’s condition?  Greater risk for substance abuse, alcoholism, depression–widely recognized as both costly and debilitating–and documented difficulties to create stable relationships.  The choice that men make not to work–or to join a workforce which is still looking to hire–indeed raises questions about families and psychological health, and about the perceived place of the individual in the social world.   But the geography of this decision or lack of apparent incentive to join the workforce that Appelbaum found particularly striking, almost approaches a collective paralysis or depression, if with distinct underlying causes, that in aggregate particularly plagues specific areas of the country–areas associated, to be sure, often with economic decline, but also which seem swamps of unsuccessful stories and narratives, and invites new narratives to be told about maps.  But the poverty of information in the data visualization, whose focus on the present status quo offers only a concentration on the short-term, seems something of an evacuation of information from the map, and demands to be supplemented by greater detail to better grasp the distribution it seeks to define.  Looking for further dimensionality of the data it presents, one is tempted to seek correlations in the flat colors of comparable datasets to find what narratives might emerge from the flat visual surfaces that are presented in the amnesiac surfaces of the data visualizations.

One might start from comparing, for example, to the short-term snapshots of depression according to a Behavioral Risk Surveillance System.  Although the broad geographic parameters of this 2010 map issued by the CDC doesn’t offer comparable fine-grained detail, and both leaves many interesting areas without data (Kentucky) and shows significantly elevated rates of depression across the Old South, it suggests contours of depression across the country, particularly dense in spots of long term out-of-workness from West Virginia–if data lacks for Kentucky–Mississippi, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Tennessee, where it crested above 10%:


But the map unsurprisingly more closely correlates in select regions with the recent Newsweek “Health Gap” that combines mental health and college attendance with other variables of 2014, which uses data from the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute–even if that map is not really surprising, and seems to square with a remove from health care, in its clustering on the Mississippi, western Kentucky, and parts of northern Floridam with the Nevada part of the Four Corners and northern New Mexico:


The distribution of the out-of-work male offers a fascinating new subject of mapping, since its distribution seems defined distinctly from the mapping of areas of economic growth, unemployment, or taxation, and suggests a local acceptance of the very demographic category of being out of work.

While we’re at it, of course, we might ask to parse the national distribution of unemployed men along both socioeconomic background and ethnicity, if only to see the results–but these seem to be beyond the point, which is the disquieting nature of the prominence of the category of not seeing oneself as a part of the workforce.  For if there are slightly more non-employed who are African American (14 percent versus 10 percent) or Hispanic (20 percent versus 15 percent), a majority (above 54%) have only a high school education or less, and seem as if our society has failed them–only one fifth have graduated from a 4-year college, in contrast to almost 40% percent of full-time workers, and the disconnect between work and education seems a clearer metric than all else, and their health, as self-reported, is predictably bad–suggesting the possibility of looming considerable social and personal costs, and a great crisis in public health, even if among the non-employed, some 74% affirmed that they have health insurance.  Yet it is conspicuous that one-fifth of non-employed have completed a college degree–even if, perhaps, only recently.

This relatively large number of college graduates who are not able to find work casts a ray of light at the deep depression that might result of being without work, and a paralyzing uncomprehending sense of inadequacy.

The below map offers a compelling mirror of society, and of the long-term difficulties we face.  For the distribution “men not working” is laden with both deep levels of depression, anxiety, and economic despair difficult to process fully, whose apparent uneven distribution and pockets of deep concentration that amazingly surpass 33% suggest the seriously impacted problems of how we define work and occupation today.  The concentration of select areas of dark blue seem swamps of something akin to despair–located around the “Four Corners” and border of New Mexico and Arizona; Southern Oregon; western Montana; northern California; Appalachia; and areas of the Deep South; southern Florida–that seem sights that are sinking, if not almost disappearing, as if potholes of personal futures, off the road map of the common good. These darkly colored regions, off the main highways of America, are less traveled areas, but inescapable parts of our nation’s economy.  Unlike the map of of unemployment for metropolitan areas, some of the most difficult regions of the persistence of men out of work appear at a remove from cities–although the maps use different indices. they suggest similar pictures of the difficulties in the topography of job creation.

Men Not Working Map

Percent Legend

New York Times/Yoni Appelbaum

The local dips in sectors of the nations reveal dark spots in the national economy that can only haunt us.  The metrics of not working men is striking, particularly as the dark green blotches in southern Oregon, northern New Mexico, Appalachia, or parts of Idaho convey a grim desperation of economic displacement, and almost communicate a sense of being left behind.  Is there an odd acceptance of a dark status quo in these areas, where with something like almost half of adult men not at all working leads to a labor market that can almost never be met, and a paralysis of looking for jobs, or actually imagining alternative signs of success?

The region in Northern California, for example, suggests a desperation at the lack of employment opportunities that leads a hazy air of diminished expectations to hang over the land.  The SAMSHA map of sub-state variations of substance abuse using data available online maps a picture disconcertingly parallel in several of its pockets, particularly much of northern California and the Florida Panhandle, but also the Four Corners and Colorado, and LA, although what, exactly, “abuse” is here needs to be examined defined:


We can see a raging 5.1% dependence on or abuse of alcohol in south-central Kentucky, abuse of drugs in Western Massachusetts, on the level of Washington DC, and similarly high levels by the Mexican border in Arizona.   Each of these areas is to some extent echoed in the map of the men who are out of the labor market and not working:  only North Dakota and Iowa seem to be showing low levels of abuse in the years before 2010, which can’t make one feel great about the country, even if the bright red spots in Oklahoma and Idaho come at considerable surprise.

Alcohol dependency seems to be more striking in Northern Central California, Idaho and Montana, and northern states like South Dakota and Minnesota, although Utah is very dry.


But the relation to the out-of-work seems particularly keen and in demand of excavating from the staid surface of the data visualization of local variations in the sustained spread of substance abuse.

Applbaum’s county-by-county visualization offers an inviting grounds for exploration, due perhaps to the appeal of the palate he uses to denote the out-of-work by deepening shades of green and dark blue to denote those men who are out of work, and the apparent narratives that the resulting distribution offers one to spin out of it:  the often opaque surface of such data visualizations seems sensitive to discrepancies in quality of life and the changing ways to spend time that result from such a lack of work.  For example, the rough terrain near to Mendocino, land of spectacularly stupendous ocean views, conceals a growing desperation among numbers of the of sustained employment in several inland areas in California, if not along its coast.

Men not Working Mendocino

Percent LegendNew York Times

Such troughs across the county suggest  a dramatically diminished range of expectations that poorly communicate a future life.  This might be increasingly true of urban areas, where lack of employment seems often endemic in some neighborhoods of Los Angeles, which pop out of a broader map of the city.

LAPercent LegendNew York  Times

Moving to a broader geographic area, however, the region of the Four Corners together with spots from the Central Valley seem similarly pock-marked with diminished hopes and lowered expectations of arriving at a permanent job, creating what seem swamps of underemployment in parts of the Southwest, where low numbers of working men in large stretches of the country create a striking culture of unwork:

four corners and central valleyPercent LegendNew York Times

the number of men who are not working creates pronounced disequilibria of employment across the economy, and indeed a radically diminished expectation of one’s sense of an active life, let alone retirement.

While rural Appalachia seems one thing, the pockets of men outside the workforce across South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, as well as parts of Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina, presents a dire image of a lack of available jobs that correlates interestingly with the refusal to accept National Health Care, and extend to the coast of the Florida panhandle.  Concentrated communities of men not looking for work along the shoreline of the southern states in the Carolinas raise questions of the geography of the out of work.


Percent LegendNew York Times

While we are only tracking men, such potholes of local employment suggest something like low-income clusters, and support groups of the economically alienated, which have no clear or immediate resolution in sight, but seems somehow, one worries, to perpetuate its own existential condition.

The notion of being left behind by a job market, or not being able to integrate within an existing workplace, with little way out, seems to be a central issue in the landscape of heightened disparities that remains.  While it demands far further study and individual local examination, the terrain often seems interminably bleak.  There is the prospect that we are in the process of a broad redefining of work, and of the working landscape, but there are plenty other areas lying outside that changing landscape of work that seem to be left out.  Our changing landscape of employment may be left at the doorstep of a changing national character, but suggests a deep divergence across the country in seeing oneself as a head of households, and of realistic economic expectations.

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Filed under data visualizations, Great Recession, infographics, mapping men without work, mapping the "Great Recession", mapping the not working, unemployment, Unemployment in America, unwork

The New Separatism and the Gas-Tax Latitudinal Divide: Tracking the After-Images of Secession across the United States (Part III)

Mapping the nation gained wide currency as a way of performing national identity with the rise of the readily printed maps.  Outfits such as the U.S. Election Map Co. that were founded in the mid to late nineteenth century to provide readers a legible record of the nation.  Scribners was fortunate to be able to invest money in their appearance and legibility continued them in works such as the maps of presidential elections in Scribner’s Statistical Atlas in spectacularly modern form– including such maps as the masterful county-by-county survey that clarified results of the highly contested presidential election of 1880, where Republicans and Democrats divided around the contested question of the continuation of Reconstruction.  These images echo the statistical maps that applied the principles Francis Amasa Walker first developed in the 1874 Statistical Atlas to visualize varied spatial distributions from population density to wealth to ethnicities for the U.S. Government–“clothing the dry bones of statistics in flesh and blood,” so that, in Gannett’s words, “their study becomes a delight rather than a task.”


Statistical Atlas


The volume dedicated to Walker showed itself particularly sensitive to the possibilities of the visual delight of arranging information for viewers in data visualizations, using graphic tools developed with the German immigrant mapmaker Edwin Hergesheimer to wax poetical about the scope of visualize geographic variations as aids by which “not only the statistician and political theorist, but the masses of the people, who make public sentiment and shape public policy, may acquire that knowledge of the country . . . which is essential to intelligent and successful government.”  These sentiments–continuing those of Walker, but announcing the new purview of the info-graphic in a culture where maps had become, in Martin Bruckner‘s words, a new form of performing the nation that built upon increased geographic literacy to narrate national identity but one that extended dramatically beyond the role printed maps played in the eighteenth century.  In the aftermath of Civil War, the body of maps that Gannett and Hewes assembled provided nothing less than a new way to embody the nation in visual form.

Good government was the final endpoint of showing the deep divide in national consensus within the popular vote in his 1883 mapping the geographic distribution as a two-color breakdown or divide, and not suggesting the conundrum that the government must faced–or a sign of the lack of legitimacy of the government, and impossibility of governing well.  In showing a historical survey of not only the “physical features of the country” but “the succession of [political] parties and the ideas for which they existed,” Walker knew that Gannett’s map suggested the different divides revealed, and his pre-Tufteian precept that “simpler methods of illustration are, as a rule, more effective” to summarize and bring together the “leading facts” was done with “care . . . taken to avoid over-elaboration,” so that “by different shades of color, the maps are made to present a bird’s eye view of the various classes of facts, as related to area or population,” including political economy, church membership, mineral deposits, and electoral returns.  The notion that the reification of electoral returns constituted a map provided a new way of envisioning the polity that Walker saw as particularly profitable for mass-readership.  We’re now often the readers of info-graphics of far greater historical poverty, far more used to parse the political electorate of the country in ways that cast the viewer as the spectator to something approaching the naturalization of insurmountable divides.


1880 popular vote for HGLibrary of Congress


The new flatness of the divide is disquieting, if not false.  The maps in the Scribners’ innovative Statistical Atlas were the product of the adventurous tastes of newspaper and magazine editors who worked with new confidence to reach new numbers of readers, investing in graphics to appeal to a new eye and a new desire to envision the nation, in ways we have only begun to reach in the far flatter visualizations that we distribute online and even in print.  In the lavishly produced periodicals of post-Civil War America, multi-colored maps raised questions about the legibility of a unified national space.  They suggested fragility in the union from the government’s point of view.  But they challenged viewers to find how that unity might be read in a particularly engaging ways–as well as being preserved, and provide far more subtle texts–and statistical knives–than the pared-down infographics that appear so often on our handhelds and screens today.  In ways that suggest a new standard for the historical depth of the infographic, the map used statistical “facts” to embody the nation so that one can almost zoom in on its specific regions, in a manner that prefigure the apparently modern versatility the medium Google Maps, but that do so by exploiting its folio-sized dimensions as a canvas to read the nation’s populations.

In ways that graphically processed the tabulation of the popular vote that it lay at the reader’s fingertips, the map’s author, Henry Gannet, delved into the question of how clearly the divide between north and south actually mapped out onto the clear enclaves and redoubts of Republican partisanship that are located in Baton Rouge and the South Carolina coast, and much of Virginia and Texas, that challenged the dichotomic division between “northern” and “southern” states.  An antecedent to GIS, in Walker’s designs for the maps, the striking color scheme presented pockets of Democratic resistance with a clarity that made them pop out and immediately strike viewers’ eyes as a way to grasp the political topography of the country in especially modern ways, as if to map the meaning of its Republican consensus.  The map represents the heights of good design that the New York newspaper industry had pioneered after the Civil War, enriched by advertising and graphic design, even if it was designed by the statistician who helmed the United States Census in Washington.  Its pointed argument on the difficulty of taking the electoral map that resulted–shown as an inset–as a reflection of an actual divide raises questions about the current tendency to naturalize “Red” states versus “Blue” states, if it seems devised to answer questions about how the national fabric was rent by opposed divides during Reconstruction.

How the map, very much in the manner of contemporary graphics, came to synthesize political history in legible form by embodying them–Walker’s “flesh and blood”–seem premonitions of contemporary market for info-graphics.  But they were removed from the increasingly unavoidable divides that recent info-graphics suggest but seem designed to perpetuate, or the readily improvised graphics of the short-term that are consumed in made-for-television maps viewed largely in living rooms on television screens.  If the unified color blocks of much data visualization is sadly designed to discourage reading or interpretation, in ways that almost seem destined to limit our political vision for the future of the country, the opportunities that Gannett’s map allows to delve into the palimpsest of the popular vote might help to remove what seem blinders on our shared sense of the political process.  The market for the new info-graphic is quite distinct, and designed not for an Encyclopedia, but created for the short-term–and indeed valued as a short-term image of the contemporary with its own expiry date.

The needs of mapping an image national continuity were quite distinct, and might be profitably historicized in ways that would be foreign from the current market for or demand that info-graphics fill.  For the rationale for creating such a visualization of the popular vote’s distribution, if contemporary to a range of new maps for visualizing and processing the nation, gained pressing value after the Hayes-Tilden contest–as it would after the recent defining Presidential contest between Bush and Gore, or for the race between Obama and Romney–for their critical explanatory role to resolve the nation’s symbolic coherence.

The resemblance in the divide revealed in info graphics seems far deeper than political partisan allegiance, and the culture of this divide difficult to pinpoint–although the anti-Republican sentiment of the South was fierce in the election of 1880 seems a likely point to begin to map the local resistance to the continued presence of federal troops.  The divide between north and south echoes the division redrawn on Wikipedia between slave-states and free states circa 1849, and  enshrined in a latitudinal divide across the southwest of America in the so-called “Missouri Compromise”to permit slave-holding in the south and prevent its expansion to the north at the same time the country expanded–



Wikipedia Commons

–and seems to continue, almost but only somewhat humorously, in the  confidence with which the ex-KGB operative Igor Panarin in 1998 forecast the future fragmenting of the United States circa 2010 into four Divided States, in a somewhat silly graphic that transposed the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 to the other side of the Atlantic.  Panarin’s image has gained currency as a meme of failed unwelcome futurology, describing the “Texas Republic” whose northern boundary recuperated the same latitudinal divide, and gained a new readership, ironically, among readers of the internet eager for new infographics to compress living history to paradigms, but suggest his own study of nineteenth-century history, as much as futurology:




And it raises questions about how we have begun to use and disseminate maps on the internet to stand as symbolic surrogates of the political divisions about which we’ve become increasingly concerned because of the worries they create about the continued smooth institutional functioning of representational democracy, and of the images we retain of how the popular vote can continue to translate into an effective Congress, rather than one dominated by gridlock.  (The ex-KGB agent’s prediction generated considerable interest in mapping the fracturing of the Republic along analogous regional divides in our own country, as the common practice of remapping cross-pollinated with GIS software and the rise of attention-getting maps.)


1.  GIS offers new modes to visualize statistical distributions and modeling national divides in the electorate, often warping actual geographical divides, in ways that have encouraged the increased role of the info graphic as a speech act.  The increased authority of picturing the nation in electoral maps have spun out from the night-time coverage of elections to remain burned in many of our cortices as evidence of a divided nation. As much as these colors have come to accentuate national divides, they create a differentiated landscape that the format of mapping seems to naturalize, and become a site that occasioned repeated glossing and interpretation for the evidence of national divisions that they appear to encode.  (Indeed, the sharing of two-color projections to forecast the outcome of the 2014 elections was both a cottage industry or diversion, so widespread was interest in adapting tools of forecasting to provide “flesh and blood” for making potentially compelling political predictions by slicing up the nation in different ways.)  Often seeming to evade the sort of issues that indeed continue to divide the United States, the widespread currency of such practices often perpetuate the very notion of a chasm of colored blocks as the best visual metaphor for the nation, in ways Walker and Gannett would find a remarkably different notion of a map.

Compelling translation of the popular to the electoral votes invoke the red v. blue divide in particularly graphic terms, and filled with a growth of a number of purple states that make the oppositional divide between Republicans and Democrats much less clean than it once was. (While the Republican party had long assumed the color blue in the nineteenth century, as the party of Lincoln, and blue was used to designate regions voting Republican the newscaster Tim Russert is credited with having first used the color-coding of the electoral choropleth to describe the prominence of the electoral divide in the United States presidential election of 2000 on a single episode of the Today show on October 30, 2000–although he denies having introduced the term as an opposition, and colored maps were long used to depict voter preferences in states.)  Back in the days of the innocence of 2000, the hues took hold to parse the nation with urgency during reporting about the results of that presidential election–and entered common parlance after the conclusion of the fourth presidential election in which the victor failed to win a plurality of the popular vote.

The apparent cleavage of the nation into two regions–more populace blue states with large electoral votes, and many red states with fewer, save Texas and the contested Florida, whose electors may have been erroneously awarded to Bush–and the map of a division of the states into what seemed a red “heartland” and blue periphery expressed a somewhat paradoxical national divide that appeared two different nations–or one nation of continuous red, framed by something of more densely populated blue.


Bush v. Gore
The far more broader expanse of a sheet of uniform red, the color specific to the Republican party by 2000, drew a clear dichotomy drawn between Blue States versus Red States, that appeared less an emblem of sovereignty than of a deeply running national divide in a country whose political process had almost lost familiar geographical moorings: the familiar geographic map was warped by the outsized role of certain states in the electorate, and the consequent often disproportionate tussling over winning their electoral votes of “swing states.”

Unlike Henry Gannett’s statistical map, the image of a contiguous region of “Red States” in the above infographic seems to divide the union, as much as offering clues and cues to get one’s mind around a divided electorate. The below cartogram of the 2004 election warps the national territory to reflect the distribution of electoral votes in each state–and the mosaic of victory that the “red” states constituted in total electoral votes revealed several divides in the nation, or the hiving off of the northeast, west, and Great Lakes states from the majority–or, alternatively, the concentration of Democratic votes in dense pockets of urban areas–that reveals two republics, all the more evident from the continuity of the U-shaped red stretch of disquieting uniformity that emerged when the popular votes is translated to a map of electoral votes.






We have become especially accustomed to interpreting the contours of such national divides in the electorate with strategic urgency in the age of Obama, although the battle for electoral victory were more likely to be resolved in cartograms than the finely-grained county by county distributions that Gannett had devised. The appeal of cartograms lies in part in how they offered an apparent opportunity to gain clarity by the almost compulsive remapping of electoral votes to decode the alliance of victory in the 2010 election in two-color cartograms: warping the divide to suggest the dissonance of terrestrial continuity with electoral votes or money spent per voter, to suggest both an accentuation of its divides, as if to pose questions about the existence of continuity among the nation’s regions and states, and a deep divide that lay in the areas where campaigns devoted the greatest attention–and ask whether this skewing deriving from distorting electoral stakes bodes well for the democratic process.

The geographical distortions of infographics seem to clarify how electoral results run against the continuity of a terrestrial maps in similar terms. The representation of current electoral division have continued to aggravate the country’s continuity long after Obama’s two presidential elections: both electoral results have been often parsed across the country to explain the divide between red and blue states, especially in the 2012 election, as if to try to discover continuity a country that seems divided into blue states and stretches of bright red: and if, until 2000, both Time magazine and the Washington Post colored Democratic majorities in red, the opposing colors of red and blue have become an image of contested sovereignty, and of articulating regions’ political differences and divides. Rather than suggest generational continuities in political allegiance over space, the divide within the country reads more clearly in Gannett’s county-by-county census, but the proliferation of cartograms respond most effectively to the problem that “these maps lie,” morphing the fifty states into rescaled distributions.

Adam Cole doesn’t claim to argue that this reflects a bit of a crisis in democratic institutions, but one can’t but consider how the current gridlock in government may stem from its failure to adequately reflect the demographics of the country, or at least the economics of the Presidential election.  Despite increasing attention to the mobility of individuals outside “blue” states to other, formerly “red”-state regions, the divide was increasingly focussed on a diminution of red states, but a concentration of Republican majorities in the central regions of the country, lying largely below the Gas-Tax Latitudinal Divide–with some notable exceptions. Even if much of the country seems happily purple, the intensity of two triads of red states strikes one’s eyes immediately.


The United States, with state sized based on electoral votes.Adam Cole/NPR


(Such maps, of course, in their interest to provide info graphics that involve “purple” shadings of a mixture of blue and red may not take into account the neurological disposition of the eye to more readily read a purple state surrounded by a sea of red as red, and fail to distinguish the degrees of purple of a region as an intensity not independent from the spectrum of the colors of nearby states:  the interest in providing a more complexly qualified picture of variations in this map, introducing shades of “purple” to a map, if constructive in the abstract, according to Lawrence Weru creates misleading interpretations that rather than profit from such proportional blendings lead the purple region to appeal more blue or more red depending on the chromatic context where it appears.)


2.  The compelling nature of such cartograms no doubt the maps that express the views of political parties, and provide a basis for imagining the continuity in how campaigns dedicate attention to the nation. Despite their explicit warping of continuity, cartograms help get one’s mind around the nature of the apparent lack of continuity across the country, and understand the depth of electoral divides and to explain the country’s composition than the mapping of electoral votes onto spatial divisions on a map, if not to project the results in far more dynamic ways of translating the “map” to practices of political representation, as much as territorial manipulation. The cartogram seems to translate spatial divides into a system of political representation that fits imperfectly on a uniform mapped space or rendering of territorial expanse, and seems particularly compelling to analyze the way that the electoral process translates the nation’s geography into institutional terms.

The most telling translation of this political process is revealed in the warping of the nation by disproportionate expenditures per state, reflected by the distortion of electoral politics–and the nature of political divides. Parties have been compelled to devote disproportionate attention to individual states, out of sync with their electoral votes, but as a reflection of the calculus of receiving a majority in the electoral college. A compelling twist to the electoral cartograms parsed political parties’ relative expenditures in the most recent Presidential election as a distribution of funds in dollars spent per voter, grotesquely warping the scale of states in the country according to the political spending in millions of dollars–which keeps a lot of purple states, but suggests that one area of the nation has almost left the attention of either party, as if they were discounted as foregone by both parties–and received but a begrudged smidgen of millions of dollars from the GOP or Republican National Committee, so clearly were their political preferences already decided and minds just made up:


bbstates_custom-e0c6c871e5a185100d0be94271fba73c0a365998-s40-c85Adam Cole/NPR


An even more warped image of the republic is produced by warping the fifty states to reveal the disproportionate number of dollars spent per voter, in a warping which has the effect of shrinking the red states in much of the south and southwest to reveal the extent to which they are simply less the terrain in which recent elections were determined: one learns even more about the deep commitment of many of the voters in the southern states in the below graphic, reflecting the returns that each campaign had on the amount of money invested locally. The map reveals how little Romney even invested in the solid Republican voting base of the south, not seeing the need to disseminate the candidate’s message in states where he held such a clear advantage that they were conceded by the Democrats: it shows the relative inefficiency of Republican expenditures in New Hampshire, Iowa, and Nevada by an off-message candidate, and the balling amount spent on political media in each state from April 10 to October 10, in which many southern states are all but squeezed out of relevance, because their outcome remained–save North Carolina–something of a fait accompli, and absent from the volley of the barrage of ads that have only recently ended with mid-term elections of 2014:




Adam Cole (NPR)/Kantor media data


It can’t be “fair” to absent a good portion of the country below a single line of latitude form the state of national political debate that on-air advertisements have to be considered as forming part. What does this mean for our Republic raises questions: but is this a form of secession itself, coming back to haunt the map of political parties’ distributions of their own expenditures? The cartogrammic shrinkage of the southern “red” states with those west of the Mississippi scarily suggests a region of the country has all but vanished from the contested regions of the electoral map, its electoral votes all but written off as a contest, and Texas shrunk to an unsightly narrow peninsula or appendage off the territories where political parties struggle: the geographic contraction of the areas below the thirty seventh parallel, which defines the “four corners” intersection of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico effectively privilege the more urban areas over the “exurban” southern states that were so much less of a contest or struggle for political attention.

The troubling depth of the division across the United States is less a mirror of the affiliation to different political parties, however, than they reflect different images of America that often reflect urban v. exurban perspectives–as in this topographical projection of peaks of population in the lower forty eight.


Blue v. Red Topo Raised



Presidential elections offer a major rush of disaggregated data that one can assemble in exciting ways, the inflow of data creates a flood of information that make it difficult to select specific criteria to foreground. One might find in the above sufficient grounds to interpret the growing chasm of political divisions in the nation as between states between those with large urban centers, and “exurban” areas of less density. The tendency to group states which tended to vote or lean Democratic–as New York, California, Florida, Ohio, Colorado, Wisconsin, Minnesota–apart from more exurban or rural areas, and to map the distrust of collective government as lying within exurban areas that lie at a spatial remove from social investments that seem compelling to areas of greater disparities of wealth that define cities–and the distance at which these “red” regions feel themselves as lying from urban areas or issues seem rendered compelling against social density.



Blue v. Red Topo Raised


3.  However tempting it is to parse the differences among the electorate’s behavior in the Obama and Romney’s contest as a mirror of deep cultural divides that seem geographically determined, this quite unsatisfactorily poses the question of how likely they can be ever bridged. Such a reinterpretation is compelling precisely because it pays less attention to the “after-image” of secession, and reveals a new political landscape of the nation, rooted in population changes. The divides between the urbanized and unorganized, or “exurban,” also reveal deep attitudes to the nature of national space, and the role of government in space–which this post wants to suggest we examine as an underlying map of voting preferences, but that can’t be revealed by voting preferences and electoral returns.

The differences between voting preferences across the nation lie not only in terms of relative urbanization, but attitudes to the economics of moving through space difficult to quantifiably map, but all to evident on the map. For in ways that define a cultural continuity that is hardly rooted in the physical land, the map embodies a divide, similar to the Gannett map, of the role of government in one’s life, and the presence of the government in economic activities, as well as the prominence of a consensus on social welfare needs.

Parsing the election of 2012 in another way by democratic v. republican gains per county, one might note the  Democratic electoral gains are strikingly concentrated in urban areas, while Republican gains dominate the exurbs that are red–a distinction that clearly correlates to driving practices and willingness to tolerate more highly priced taxes for gas–and the Republican gains group together in clear clusters and runs, predominantly in the inland central southern states and inland northwest.  This data visualization eerily reifies the very divides that Gannett’s almost hundred-and-thirty-year-old visualization of polarized voting preferences first set forth:


Net_Change_MapDavid Jarman/Daily Chose


What can explain this shift across such a firmly defined latitudinal divide, which seems a crease across the country, as well as a refusal to hamper what is taken as the inalienable right to keep low the cost of free access to take a seat behind the wheel?


4. The data used to parse these moderns electoral maps are invested with significance, but may not reveal clear “after-images” of earlier landscapes precisely because the priorities of parties have so dramatically shifted, and the range of issues addressed in the political landscape have left it to be polarized in ways that have far less to do with the polarization over issues such as, say, Reconstruction of the south. Despite the greater amounts of data that presidential elections offer to parse a picture of the country, local legislative institutions provide just as significant a “map” of the traces of autonomy from national standards. The mapping of levels of gas taxes was meant to register the affront of impeding open access to the cheapest mileage. But the map of the distribution of gas taxes in the United States may say much more.

Exxon Mobil’s blogger Ken Cohen boasted that the map “explains a lot”, as a suggests clear division in local variations from the federal gas tax that exist across the country as if to show the inequalities in how local, state, and city taxes collect from forty to sixty cents per gallon–creating an inequality of cost that is itself far beyond the total federal tax imposed of 18.4 cents a gallon, creating unwarranted variations in the costs that drivers payed at the pump across the land able to be examined in greater detail at an interactive version of a map of the United States which displays the relative divisions of taxes by hovering over localities.

The differences in regions’ relative acceptance of gas taxes may indicate less the toleration of government’s invasiveness, but instead a huge shift in attitudes to space extending across exurban areas. The acceptance of a gas tax–or its ‘toleration’–reveals tendencies to reject as invasive the presence of government–and throw into almost topographical relief a considerably deep division within the local legislatures responsible to voters and local opinion. In ways that seems mirrored with surprising clarity in the below distributions of local “toleration” of taxes on gas–a sensitive barometer of regional autonomy, if one hardly comparable to the withdrawal of federal troops–the nation seems starkly divided that reveals difficulties of arriving on national consensus of its own, if on a topic of apparently less dramatic significance. If such taxes can be described as imposed by the government, the tax might be best construed not only on the toleration of taxes, but consensus if not agreement as to its collective benefits of something akin to a value-added tax. Indeed, the political divide in the country seem to have instantiated a divide along roughly the thirty-seventh parallel that reflect distinct national priorities, allowing the American Petroleum Institute to describe the disparities of the taxation on petroleum as if it described an unwarranted degree of government–state or federal–interference in the average American’s access to a full tank of gas.

A surprising divide emerged in this far more simple visualization, whose divides may parse different attitude to the economics of occupying space, based on states’ relative willingness to accept and tolerate taxes on gasoline, as much as chart the unfair nature of differences in how costs are deferred to drivers at the pump. The admittedly interested map makes its point about the uneven national “gas tax burden” along the thirty-seventh parallel, foregrounding a deep divide in refusing the role of local or regional government in daily life. Rather than reflect a distribution of draconian levels of taxation on gas, the map charts consensus to accept levels of an additional gas tax. While it does not perfectly translate into electoral preferences, it reveals a deep divide across the country that seems to fold the populace in ways perhaps not basically political,so much as in the degree to which each state’s populace would accept or suffer additional taxes as a means to meet public needs: it almost seems as if the reluctance to sanction the sort of imposition of taxes at the gas pump was seen as an analogous affront to regional honor.


Gas Tax

gas key


Thanks to the appearance of a map that first appeared on ExxonMobil’s “Perspectives” blog, we have a useful way to parse the spectrum of the country’s attitude to government–and to the involvement of government in regional differences to the economics of moving through space. For the refusal to raise taxes across the southern states-and indeed the apparent rejection of most anyone with a foot below the thirty-seventh parallel, almost carve the country into two halves, with the exception of Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and Arkansas. It is striking that a cartoon that carves the country, or lower forty-eight, into a map that approximates the polemic division of wealth in the US by which Susan Ohanian assigned that very same region the 90%.  Her map echoes the divide, her cartographic take on the lower 48 assigning the the lower 90% percent of American wage-earners the region lying below the latitudinal divide, echoing the association of the region with a far less developed social infrastructure than either the east or west coast or to the north–only somewhat subliminally and slightly nastily pointing out the shifting per capital income across the land:



The divide that perpetuates lower gas taxes–or the “tax burden” on how freely gasoline flows at the pump–maps nicely onto a region with markedly less public transportation and transit.  The very same states’ governors, from New Jersey to to Florida, made something of a pact with the Devil to tank interconnected high-speed rail corridors proposed by President Obama, who championed alternative transit routes early in his presidency in hopes to rebuild a decayed infrastructure. If creating such corridors could have both encouraged local job growth and economic stimulus–as well as setting the basis for future economic growth–the refusal of and Scott Walker, that reflect the largely “exurbanite” populations of red states in exurbs. (Low gas prices serve to compensate for poor transit systems, and work to discourage their use, reducing demand:  only one top-ten rated US transit systems lie in the states–Austin–although a ranking meeting local “transit” is unclear, given that transit needs are by definition locally specific, and difficult to quantify.)  They are now a thing of the past, and Exxon-Mobil seems to turn its sights to the gasoline taxes that might enable their construction in the rest of the country–as if the lack of attention to the public good might be the new norm we could all be so fortunate to possess.

The two-color new flatness of the info-graphic seems complicit in how we perpetuate this view.


5.  What appears to perform a regional consensus exists may in fact register the primacy of accessibility to highway driving, or access to ‘automotive freedom’ in a region.  For it seems that the degree to which the individual right to drive through space is accepted as inalienable, or not having any possible contradiction with the public interest, in ways that might have much to do with the tanking of public projects for planned high-speed rail in some coastal corridors, if not an animosity to the project of expanding choices in public transit Obama long ago sought to enact–but whose projected corridors in the south were resisted and never completed.





The absence of transit corridors has led to the growth of private taxi-like shuttles for patients in areas where ambulance carriers cover wide areas without clear transit corridors.




Did the recent resistance to enacting such corridors of transit help to intensify the sort of divide we can witness in Ken Cohen’s Gas-Tax map? The 2009 Stimulus Package was intended to include a planned Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor, designed to change transit’s playing field in the South and Gulf Coast.




Such plans were already, of course, in the works since 2002, in the Bush Administration.  But their defeat, in no small part due to the apparently lesser geographic population density, was encouraged by the perception of a national divide of transit needs.



It prevented greater integration of a North American landbridge in much of the South, to supplement the lack of a crucial lattice of corridors of highway integration.




6.  We can make inferences about the lack of success of such transit programs, in part thanks to the consolidation of local, state, and federal taxes on gasoline provided by the American Petroleum Institute.  If the map derives from varying forms of taxation passed on at the pump, including local costs of fuel-blending that increase the costs of refining, a national divide to throw into relief of tolerating the imposition of an additional gas tax. While the map does not track the prices in taxes paid at the pump, and the cost for gasoline reveals considerable geographic variation by market and supply, the API plotted the total “fuel-tax burden” in a national map that reveals more about a national latitudinal divide than they had intended: the clear color scheme suggests that the 37th parallel creates a cliff in ‘superadded’ gas costs–and augments the sense of this divide by placing Alaska beside Texas–some fifteen cents below the national average in the U.S.  It mirrors the regions worst served by public transit in the US, to judge by the concentration of workers who relied on public transit for their commutes circa 2008.




The missing information from other maps may suggest a quite grounded rationale for the absence of accepting taxes on gasoline:  not only the reluctance to accept taxes, given the reliance on automotive travel as a primary means of transit and transport, but the absence of a network of public transit that would provide an incentive and rationale for the readiness to accept a tax on gasoline in exchange for other public benefits.

Seen another way, one can link the sense of spatial movement in the region of significantly decreased gas taxation on the rise of a single-driver culture of access to roads, rather than public transit–a trend that Streetsblog found to correlate not only to more restricted and curtailed transport choices, with little but circumstantial basis (and in a pretty cheap shot), to national obesity trends across the nation:




7.  Although the flatness of infographics oddly seems to obstruct further inquiry into the distribution it reveals, the differences in how the land is habited suggests divides that are difficult to surmount, and by no means only political in origin.  While it might be seen as leading many to move south for cheaper gas, the consequent lowering of the perceived “fuel-tax burden” to below forty cents per gallon–sometimes by as much as five cents/gallon–across state lines indicates a refusal to let the government interpose themselves between driver and pedal, or pump and tank. It suggests a shifting sense of taxation structures and investment of local priorities of dedicated tax revenue that strikingly mirrors the very regions at the presence of government in local life, but is often tarred as yet another instance of the invasive nature of government’s presence in public life.

The map echoes the more prominent manifestation of local resistance to the apparent federal invasiveness long mandated by the Department of Justice’s “oversight” of enacting changes in local electoral laws, based on historical presence of policies deemed discriminatory, first enacted in the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  Under the logic of the autonomy of “states’ rights,” such “pre clearance” was abolished, although an  alternative proposal the issue of “pre clearance” was framed as triggered by successive voting rights violations in four states–Texas; Georgia; Louisiana; and Mississippi–rather than fifteen. The VRA’s original provisions, widely deemed “for half a century the most effective protection of minority voting rights,” or fourth article, was approved as recently as 2006 by the US Congress. But widespread resistance to the federal policy grew with keen regional separatism among many of the same “southern” states, or the configuration of the South–minus Florida, North Carolina and Arkansas, with the addition of Arizona and Alaska–who pushed back against oversight of changes to voting laws as redistricting or Voter ID as undue interference as local policies–even as the ability of entrusting states to develop their own policies of redistricting has been recently open to challenge in Mississippi and, in Alabama, for the rigid use of explicitly racial quotas, echoing early charges of partisan gerrymandering in Texas–but raising questions of how much race or partisanship is at stake.


Areas Covered by VRA-and additionsAreas Covered by VRA-and additions


These coincidence between these maps isn’t entirely coincidental. Indeed, one is struck by the striking “family resemblance” to the infographics we use to represent the nation’s complex composition in a map.


8. How much are we overly habituated to visualize a divide that we seem to have a difficulty looking outside its two-color classification?  It bears remark that the afterimage of secession is rehearsed in quite rhetorical manners to raise the specter of national dissolution–by now imprinted on the collective consciousness–if expanded to include a few ‘swing states’ to suggest the recent expansion of the “old South.”

It’s ironic that the iconic image of secession is rehearsed in maps imagining secession from paper currency, which employ strikingly similar visualizations to forecast a coming shift in monetary policy and practice that would be brought by BitCoin. Although its eye-grabbing vision of secession is deceptive, the below “hoax”-map distributes thirty-six cities in twenty states where one can pay bills in Bitcoin as if they were poised to “dump” paper currency, or abandon the US dollar and withdraw from the closest to a common convention to which all fifty states adhere: the map of secession–perhaps based on states that have accepted applications for exchanges in the digital currency that originated on the Deep Web on the TOR browsing network and on hidden sites of illicit exchange as the Silk Road–is of course not an actual map of secession.  But it is designed to pose as a visualization of “the rebellion [in currency] that quickly spread to main street America” with antecedents in a system of currency devised by Thomas Edison, which would immediately provide financial returns as it replaced the dollar, as if it recaptured the past stability of a lost gold standard in the face of the fluctuation of value of American currency.  Lack of internal differentiation in the below of urban and non-urban areas in the below perpetuates an image of legal secession of states that are shown by big monochrome color blocks that seems to prey on viewers’ eyes by its introduction of a familiar dividing line.

The mapping of monetary secession, launched by Money Morning–Your Daily Map to Financial Freedom and diffused to alarm viewers on sites such as, is not really explained carefully, and seems to lack its own legend but was intended to depict a collective rejection of paper money as if the “red states” were wise to a growing financial trend. In this barely disguised desparate push for Bitcoin digital currency–“now accepted by dentists in Finland!”–the map stokes fear in paper money, and can’t help both to echo the notion of a dismantling of the United States based on the rejection of a federal currency–echoing a language of states’ rights in its rather preposterous design of a fanciful future national fracturing as some states dispense altogether with paper money: the states divided by the tragedy of the institution of slavery now seem divided by farce. (How maps mislead: California is colored red, due to the fact that one city, Menlo Park, has moved in such a direction, not the entire state–and cities elided with states.)




The afterimage of secession is here, rather improbably, immediately recognizable, but raises a recognizable specter in monetary terms, stoking fears of a new national disillusion that has emerged along sharp lines. One doesn’t usually imagine the digital divide to include the majority of states in the deep South–if in ways that address the viewer who is tried to be wooed to Bitcoin, rather than an offer an image of the nations health. But if the map is a bit of a hoax, the use of something like a secessionary map to depict the rejection of paper money that the U.S. Government has unwisely continued to sanction cannot be much of a coincidence. The cities that push for the ejection of paper money were not by all means concentrated in the southern states, according to the map–which stages a hoax, but one that also reveals the country as broken into two halves by the abandoning of paper money which actually maps the sites of companies that will pay salaries in non-paper Bitcoin.

The recurrence of the very same fold across the nation’s center, roughly along a latitudinal divide to scare viewers–with California added in for good measure, based on the city of Menlo Park.


US broken by Bitcoin


Although a hoax, the “map” of the impending abandonment of paper currency shows a fracturing of the nation along the lines of the adoption of Bitcoin.  If it echoes the abandonment of the gold standard as a monetary system–or the amount of silver used in dollar coins and actual currency, the map is most striking for breaking down the divisions in the  nation in a state-by-state way that has particular power as it is so often used in political visualizations of electoral returns.  What else might explain the persuasive power of this meme of national division?  The status of Oklahoma, a familiar icon of frontier freedom, shows it has  recently moved to move away from paper currency to accept, with bipartisan support, gold and silver as currency.  The rejection of a common federal paper currency seems the ultimate standard of secession, echoing the dismay at the abandonment of the gold standard or the withdrawal from a cash-based economy.

An eery footnote to this atlas of symbolizing the nation is the proximity with which the map mirrors (or maybe recycles) the Democratic vote in 1880–although it stretches some credibility to imagine the former constellation of seceding states on the cutting edge of accepting Bitcoin.  It is tempting to universalize or essential the latitudinal divide that recurs in these maps, but makes sense to cast the region’s apparent distancing from majoritarian consensus as not only something of a different economic culture, but a different culture of moving through and occupying space.  The confounding of that culture with independence within the states’ rights movement–and deep distrust of federal government–existed long before Obama’s election.

Viewed through special lenses, alert to the after-image of secession, each of the maps define variations in the continuity of a cultural divide phrased as a reaction to the absence of continuity that was registered in Gannett’s earlier 1883 info-graphic–but that now seems to be replayed both as tragedy and a farce.  The question that this set of posts pose, perhaps, is how we can create more engaging info-graphics of the nation whose visual consumption would sustain and drive further attention and exploration of local variations–or at least not reduce us to a stupor of oversimplification that is an excuse for orienting us to the oppositional tactics of political debate through the pretense of showing us the actual lay of the land.  What compelling mapping of local variations might better command attention as a record of divides worthy of our attention?

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Filed under American Petroleum Institute, data visualization, Gore v. Bush, infographics, Obama v. Romney

The New Separatism and the Gas-Tax Latitudinal Divide: Tracking the After-Images of Southern Secession across the United States (Part I)

No region is an island, but divides are defined in ways that create a transmitted insularity along what might be called the Gas-Tax Latitudinal Divide that cuts across the United States, bisecting much of the nation along what almost appears a meridian.  Even before the efflorescence of confederate resentment in southern states clear in the 2016 Presidential election, but not at all clearly perceived in recent years, but evident the apparent toleration of the claims of white supremacy and the far right.

Indeed, the depth of memories seem to have been provoked by the stripping of symbols of localism and place like the Confederate flag–the emblem of the separateness of the southern identity–exacerbated by a resurgence of regional solidarity reflecting a perceived loss of regional identity and a intrusive federal objections to a symbolism of nobility.




The resistance of localism–and the national drama, indeed, of the attempt to strip the region of its symbol of autonomy–has perhaps not only had a greater impact in how early twenty-first century politics have played out in America, but of the deep presence of the divide of the seceded states across generations.  Can the survival of this divide be mapped?


1. All maps encode narratives, and we turn to maps to spin narratives about the nation every election cycle.   But the rebirth of federalism from 2015 changed the division between red and blue states on the map, and created a deep resentment toward Washington, D.C.  The birth of a division between “red” and “blue” states which emerged in the late 1980s has been revised as several states have started to melt purple, and others shift their demography.  But that creates its own narrative of nationhood:  increasingly, from 2000, “red” states came to describe the national political geography, far more than, say, regions of the “South” or “Northeast” could hope to do, or that the “West” once did.

To be sure, recent threats–or concerns–that supporters of Donald J. Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election would not support the decision of the nation might serve to remind us of just how important the unity and bridging of regional divides is after a presidential election–if only to repair the rifts that might have been particularly pronounced in our current political campaigns, no doubt as the campaigns have become more extended and increasingly conducted in rallies and over televised conventions, and voters more ready to demonize their candidates’ opponents on social media.  Trump’s request to monitor election booths to prevent voting fraud may have  encouraged fear of fraud in the nation unlike the recent past, but revealed a deep disturbance as to the trust in common institutions, no doubt reflecting the lack of a common news source.  The increased skepticism as to the authority of the results of the election may seem a bizarrely clever ploy–given the guarantee it created of silence as to the apparent results of the election that Trump later won–but the seeds of doubt the charges seemed to create were most able to find an audience in southern states, in part as such deep doubts existed about the proprietary nature of a white, male identity.

The unpacking of the regional identity of the Gas Tax Latitudinal Divide provides an interesting instance of the transmission of identity across time–even despite the clear lack of qualitative local detail that the map of regional anti-federalism provides.  The access that maps offer to narratives widely vary from the itinerary to the abundance of topographic maps.  But data visualizations as that of gasoline taxation provide a problematically pronounced thin description of expanse, the relative opacity of whose surface is difficult to enter, and whose past is more difficult to excavate.  Such visualizations focus so closely on mediating the immediate short-term, stripped of narrative context, and removed from history, one can ignore the divide they reinstate over memories of earlier divides.  But when one examines the continued adoption of voting rights restrictions in the United States, the echo of political legacies in the land as to the role of government–and its openness to the participation of all citizens–is especially evident in the stipulation in the Voting Rights Act that certain states cannot change election policies without oversight from the Attorney General, and that longstanding legacies of voter exclusion warrants continued federal oversight of voting laws.

As it stands, the vacation of the fifth section of the VRA has led to a new fault-line in the country about where restrictions on voting have been introduced in the 2016 election, with dangerous consequences in our notion of what sorts of exclusion from the voting booth are enshrined in local laws.  But the divide was very present to the segregation laws on the books in the United States as late as 1949, when an early attempt to take stock of the continued segregation of the Southern states was mapped for the benefit of readers in Edwin S. Newman’s  Law of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties: A Handbook of Your Basic Rights.


civilrightsmap-jpg-crop-original-originalfrom The Law of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties: A Handbook of Your Basic Rights


The preponderance of separate voting and indeed of institutionalized segregation south of the parallel 36°30’N that divided once seceded states suggested a coherent code of conduct, not completely separate from the diffusion of policies of segregation in the rest of the union but concentrated  in the southern states as enshrined in the law–as it had remained in Arizona and much of New Mexico close to the southern border.


southern-segregationfrom  The Law of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties: A Handbook of Your Basic Rights


It is perhaps no surprise that many of the states that have recently introduced such new restrictions can be mapped onto those states where voting registration was not only less uniform, but lay below 50% in 1964–states including Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia, as well as parts of Arizona and North Carolina.  The introduction of new restrictions in the area that lies south of what might be call the divide of the United Sates along the lines of political secession when the nation split along the parallel 36°30’N.  For among the multiple divides that maps of the United States so often mask, the continuing salience of the divide of slave-owning states, a divide that long animated national electoral maps, the parallel is made particularly evident in the history of national data visualizations.




To be sure, the data visualization of disparaties in local taxes of gasoline provides the clearest way to place in evidence the increased economic and political polarization that has emerged over the past three decades.  But doesn’t the growing reliance on infographics and choropleths–those convenient snapshots of the political and socioeconomic status quo–also manipulate the viewer to focus on an explicitly short-term image of the country’s divisions, tailor made, as it were, to suit the very rhetoric of polarization that our political parties have openly curried and engaged?  Indeed, the location of six states whose voters face new voting restrictions in the current election–the .  The limited notion of government that such restrictions presuppose is in a sense an ugly scar, not often visible in the symbolic unity of the national map.  Of the eleven states with highest African American turnout in 2008–when Barack Obama was elected President–six have adopted restrictions on voting rights since 2010, including Georgia, Mississippi, West Virginia, and South Carolina, in an apparent systematic if not reflexive effort to retract access to the ballot box and restrict participation in public elections of national import.



The enactment of strict voter ID laws in much of the nation, expected to curtail or repress turnout of in blacks, asian Americans, and latino communities, in what seem attempts to repress voting rights and take advantage of the disadvantaged by excluding the votes of many.  The clustering of new voting restrictions in the southern United States–broadly construed as Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina, Florida, and West Virginia–suggests that the very discriminatory practices that southern states adopted which led to the Voting Rights Act to prevent states from changing voter laws in ways that excluded minorities from the vote–most often by adopting Voter ID, cutting back on voter registration, prevent on-site registration, and pre-registration–threateining to disenfranchise a half a million minority voters.

We were struck by seeing this divide resurrected in a “gasoline tax map” by ExxonMobil blogger Ken Cohen, or in the rather stark divide among states where children are more likely to be raised in a two-parent family–a divide that also runs across our divide into “blue” and “red” states, but contains a striking latitudinal divide according to Census data–a divide that is particularly cautionary, given the benefits children gain from being raised in a household of two parents–and the steeper economic inequalities fostered by the predominance of single-parent households.

two-parent households

New York Times

It is striking that such inequalities are present in an area of such historically steep social inequalities.

To be sure, the country is as politically divided as it has been since the Civil War in recent decades, due both to rising income inequality and to the overlay between money and politics across the country–and the increasing drift to the right of the states-rights no-tax pro-industry Republicans.  Data visualizations that materialize this division, such as the recently-mapped Gas Tax Latitudinal divide, an almost oppositional division of the country by local levels of gasoline taxation, exemplifies how a vision of the present seems to blind us to the past–and to the divide of the country during the Civil War that it seems intentionally to evoke, even as it does so while erasing the historical memory of the division of the country during the Civil War, and the question of states’ rights that the Civil War was fought to resolve.  The current currency of a map that rematerializes such divides, however, and the very picture of an oppositionally divided nation that it insidiously naturalizes and perpetuates.  For the data visualization functions by naturalizing divisions on any issue as if they were inscribed upon the land, and gives an irrefutable evidentiary value to the very claims whose existence they chart.

Is the evocation of a degree of opposition that previously surfaced in the Civil War reveal an after-echo of earlier social and political divides, or does it reflect the distinct political priorities that shape the political topography of the South?  For the division of much of the nation along a deeply etched parallel 36°30’N has been forgotten by the condescension of posterity, as we forget the salience of its transmission in regional memory.

1.  The stark divergence that the data visualization records seems to show how local interests trump the collective.  Its oddly straight divide obscures disturbing inequalities that cut across America, however, and distract viewers from the actual inequalities which have been with us for some time.  And it makes us wonder what other lines cut, similarly, across the country, even as it seems to suggest the arbitrariness of an imposition of taxes at the pump above its seemingly randomly chosen boundary.  The rhetoric of the visualization of the almost latitudinal divide in a “gasoline tax map” by ExxonMobil blogger Ken Cohen shows taxes descending below 40 cents/gallon below the thirty-seventh parallel as if to naturalize a division that might as probably reflect a line of Vitamin D insufficiency that seems specific to the states that lie below the same meridian, whose apparently arbitrary definition conceals the deep significance with which the line was invested in the formation of the United States.   For the Gas-Tax divide raises almost unconscious visions and memories of how different levels of the collective that is our country can coexist on each of its sides–and raise a question of what sort of clear division exists along that line that makes a tax of 40 cents per gallon such a significant division of the nation that it might be poised to replace that between “red” and “blue” states. The visualization below, as mapped by a blogger for Exxon Mobil, compels us to examine the depth that this apparently purely conventional divide has long held in American history, and indeed to try to unpack the persistence of the division along the deeply etched parallel 36°30’N as a divide of national significance, not forgetting the extent of its significance, in a manner often masked by the symbolical and formal coherence of a national map.

Less than 40 CentsAmerican Petroleum Institute

latitudinal divideWikipedia

Is it possible that we are increasingly becoming a nation of readers that has come to accept the relative inequities that data visualizations inscribe, and in need of bringing a deeper skepticism to interpret the stark geographical divisions that they inscribe?   For the authority of the organization of the lower forty eight states in the union that the Gas Tax map seems to perpetuate take the variable of attitudes to a Gas-Tax as evidence of the inequity of an imposition of a specific tax to make a polemic point, but erase the deep divisions it defines in a landscape that the map invites viewers to see as otherwise undifferentiated, but suggests something like a crease in the map of the United States whose memory stubbornly persists among its residents.

The continuity of a bounded region is the implicit subject, to be sure, of any map, and any disruption or divide calls attention to itself as disturbing the otherwise harmonious surface that a map offers to the world.  But the manner that data visualizations invite us to make pronouncements based on a division of hues or an oppositional palette invite its viewers to leap to pronouncements about the variable mapped, even as it seems to empty that division of historical meaning.  All too often, the data visualization works by removing individuals from the history of the habitation of the country, or of the inhabitants of the land, by not inviting us to tell their story, but to present itself as a sufficient statistical record of how the land is inhabited.  As one form of condescension of posterity, much lamented by E. P. Thompson, the data visualization seems to remove the land from the lens of the past.

The difficulty of the autonomy of the visualization as a register erases its status as an argument, investing itself with the objectivity of a map, and removes it from the redolent memories that its flat colors seem to mask.

Jasper JohnsJasper Johns, Map (1961)

2.  Only by reading beneath its surface, and uncovering the transmission of those divides, can they be both excavated and unpacked.  By providing an intensive reading of a map that begs for a surface reading–and that presents itself as a transparent sign of divides within the country that seem disenfranchising, to say the least, or unjust, this post seeks to take the “divide” of tax levels as something of a commentary on the deep divides that have haunted the nation, and that continue to preoccupy those who, like the Supervisor of the US Census Henry Gannett, who famously mapped the divisions of the electorate in the post-Civil War election of 1876, when Southerners joined in a Democratic block, search for a convincing embodiment of national unity.  L.P. Hartley rightly warned the “past is a foreign country:  they do things differently there.”  But the after-images of secession replayed a deeply set collective memory, even as maps sought to contain the different ideas about the nation–and national governance.

Latitude in Gannet's MapLibrary of Congress

At the time of the 1880 election, continued presence of the federal government in ensuring universal voting rights in Southern states, whose advocacy by the Republican made the election a sort of referendum which most all the Southern states would reject.  If the map embodies an image of the nation, the sharp split in the early statistical map that Gannett elegantly designed after the presidential election reveal a divide that eerily mirrors what seems a possible broad rejection of the Democratic party, which fell so sharply and strikingly along the historical break of political consensus along the dividing parallel 36°30’N strikingly recurs in mapping lower gasoline taxes across the United States.

One might do well to read the gas-tax division less as a self-contained statement, than yet another layer of lamination that is placed above the deep discrepancies in economic mobility that are evident across the country, in a recent 2010 census, and then go deeper to excavate the historical significance of that divide, in another deep divide striking as a stark reminder of the coexistence of multiple national economies.


New York Times

While the demographic category has ben not mentioned so far, a prominent element to this picture of national division is race, and the undeniable echo–far more difficult to trace or visualize–of what race continues to signify in different populations that inhabit areas of the land:

Black non-Hispanic 2010 census

3.  The convenient conceit of the national map is to mask faults in the coherence of a sovereign territory.  But the ethics of infographics that are designed to expose fault-lines have not been conceived, and nor have what these infographics encourage us to notice and to ignore.  The spread of our current electoral maps, or their GIS variant geographic distribution of voting habits, reveal surprisingly stark divides that undermine or challenge the nation’s unity and how the technology of mapping suggest a different manner for imagining national unity and noticing national divides.  The habituation to dividing the nation into distinct blocks of a data-driven landscape oddly omits deeper understandings of the regions, even if they are organized around somewhat selective samplings of information, even as they erase the historical context or situations that motivated these divides.

If these are artifacts of the infographics that flood the airwaves and even more the internet, such on-demand maps provide readily orchestrated images that all too often prey on our sense of a historical divide, for all their almost intolerable historical thin-ness.  The GIS-derived maps work by defining imagined boundary lines through preferences that embody new regions of coherence, creating coherent of blocks of voters and regions that seem definitively removed from one another, and almost removed from time, focussing on the present and short-term decisions about politics of apparently diminished historical perspective.  Infographics such as that depicted in the header unwittingly challenge the notion that the state can still perform a symbolization of the nation–or will ever be able to do so effectively–by challenging their readers’ relations to the symbolization of space.

The United States seems to fracture once again on parallel 36°30′, slightly below the line of Vitamin D insufficiency.  The latitudinal line is less rooted in reaction to a historical moment like the 1861 secession, however–the event which began the US Civil War–but to the region’s numinous mythistory.  The mythos of image of regional independence, if stripped of a clear political ideology, is recast as a symbolic frontier of lower gasoline taxes.  But the line gains its symbolic purchase in no small part for its historical resonance of an actual past historical divide–even if it makes no reference or gesture to note it.  The line mirrors not only those states once-seceding from the union, but a map of where the institution of slavery was most prevalent in 1860.  This is the same map, in other words, where the sociologists Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell, and Maya Sen posited a longstanding divide shaped in no small part by the existence of incentives for reinforcing racist institutions even after slavery was nominally abolished; the map oddly recalls, in a tacit sense, albeit one submerged in our cultural memory, the distinct institutions and political attitudes legitimized institutional discrimination as strategic means of containing or resisting Reconstruction, which today inform, they argued, opposition to affirmative action.  It is striking that the division of the nation into two halves was encoded in graphic form when the Superintendant of the US Census, Mr. Henry Gannett, used electoral statistical to distribute the popular in the Presidential election of 1880, for the Scribners’ Historical Atlas of 1883, to explain how the nation, in the face of deep Southern resistance, elected the Republican James Garfield to the White House.

In Gannet’s map, one encounters an afterimage of the Civil War and moment of secession in the continued coherence of anti-Republicanism that seems embodied by the South.  If Acharya and colleagues suggested that the “cataclysmic event” of Emancipation threatened to undermine the longstanding dynamic of economic and political power, Gannett’s selective shading in his color map charted the distribution of the popular vote into red-dyed regions of anti-Republican sentiment that express the rejection of of observers to ensure Emancipation was achieved, and the echo of fiercely anti-Republican sentiment, that give an eerily similarly quality to the shifting physiognomy of the nation in a single statistical map. But the historical referent of the receding past of Secession and of slavery suggest a far more accurate reading of the national pulse than the demagoguery of the infographic of the Gas Tax Latitudinal Divide.

1880 popular vote for HGLibrary of Congress

Gannett’s map embraces a land of two colors, but its divide between political parties evidences the two standards of toleration of slavery that had been effectively  sanctioned in the Missouri Compromise.  Denis Wood observed that all maps “perform the act of statehood.”  This function may be doubly true of maps of electoral results.  The divides that re-emerge within such infographics offer a technology for parsing the nation, however:  and it is no surprise that the resurgence of political polarization of the nation along an issue framed as nation, casting local debates and allegiances as congruent with nation concerns, has brought the efflorescence of infographics that cannot only be tied to GIS, so much as the materialization of dissensus in a vision of the nation.   To be sure, the widespread defection of a generation Southern Democrats after the 2010 Obama election set in motion a divide, that encouraged a latitudinal divide to materialize in maps in ways that shifted the national landscape and the image of the nation that maps create.

Longstanding resistance to accepting the imposition of federal taxes at the pump was not only a residue from a century and a half about federal presence in the south, but the “inequalities” it illustrates reveals disrupted what Wood called the “performance of statehood” along a startlingly similar–and deeply resonant–geographic dividing lines.  The recent remapping of historical divides in gasoline taxes are not in themselves bids to rewrite the coherence of territorial unity, but clearly gesture to threats to the coherence of the sovereign status of the country that  maps of Southern Secession try to process, and which haunted the first statistical mappers of the nation in the period following the Civil War.  The Gas-Tax Map is of course ostensibly focussed only on the present, and far more dominated by the short-term than the historical, but offers something like an afterimage of this divided vision of the nation.  The addition of historical perspective on how infographics work in figuring and forging an image of the nation may be a needed counterpart to the declarative insistence of discrepancies of unequal taxation that it seems to suggest.

The transformation of the map into differently-hued blocks illustrates the mental jujitsu somewhat specific to the medium of infographics, which replace the symbolic coherence of the nation with a fragmented version, upending the performative power of a symbolic unity.  One often can’t help looking at the above data visualization, or the images that render the mid-term elections in clear divides, as a reflection of deep divisions that haunt the local political landscape.  This is especially true of the “Gas Tax” divide posted some months earlier in the Exxon-Mobil blog, which now seems almost a premonition of the more recent electoral divide. For despite the premium on the short-term in such data visualizations, which act as if they were transcriptions of the nation’s temperature or public opinion polls, in apparent ignorance among those who craft such visualizations of historical national divides, the symbolic divide cannot help but reference the traumatic divide that split the nation in ways that seem difficult to bridge.

2.  The Gasoline-Tax Divide eerily resurrects a divide between northern and southern states around slave-holding.  Indeed, a sit is rendered, the return of the repressed gains a new immediacy that threaten to replace or overwhelm reality, given the persuasive format of the division in the nation they insidiously perpetuate.


If such a division seems emphasized by the medium of the infographic, the status of infographics in collapsing or synthesizing a large range of data in a readily consumed image demands to be examined for the facility with which it creates national divides.  Although the infographic may only be about the present-day, it places a historical burden on the national divide it resurrects, in gesturing to the current divide as if the entire nation was at stake.  GIS data visualizations, for all their focus on the present and the short-term, tend to challenge the coherence of the nation, by evoking images of the traumatic divides that have rent the country, including the historical divide of southern Secession which had seemed to have receded in collective memory.  But this divide seems to haunt the country during the Obama presidency, seems to haunt the response to riots after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO or the debates about the Voting Rights Act.  The point isn’t that, as Rand Paul argued in Time magazine, that the “something is wrong with criminal justice in America,” but that the south, where Paul resides, where the owner of Celebrity Foods Restaurant in Ferguson can ask, “If you have a commander-in-chief, in a high position like that, facing racial profiling and slander on a daily basis, what do you think it is like for simple, every day, law-abiding African Americans?” is still haunted by a divide.

4.  The recycling of this still-traumatic divide is examined in another post on the persistence of Southern Separatism in the Gas Tax map, which also offers the pretext for this over-lengthy rant on the disturbing images that continue haunt the visualization of  current national divides, and the danger that we face in their compulsive naturalization.  The cognitive quickness with infographics as the above or of the midterm elections of 2014 write off a large area of the South was not only written off as a block of red states but a separate part of the nation in many recent data visualizations, in ways that which, for all their recording of the present, seem haunted by the image of regional secession–and most especially by the very divides that undermined the coherence of the nation from 1861, when the continuity of territorial mapping was overcome, as it were, by the separation of South Carolina and then other slave-holding states south of the parallel 36°30’N that enshrined a scarring divide across the nation by affirming the rights to own in the Missouri Compromise.   Recent projections of political elections eerily and somewhat inexplicably still reflect the same line, as if its fracture line were still evident.

959px-Missouri_Compromise_Line.svgWikipedia Commons

The historical occurrence of the divide however appears to intentionally evoke the very trauma of the breakage of the nation along a known fracture line.  The very format of defining blue and red blocks within the country are imitated in how we remember the unfolding of the Secession of Southern States, here shown on Wikipedia in the Missouri Compromise along the parallel 36°30’N:  if the fault line in the nation around the institution of slavery seems to haunt the divides television maps create of the nation’s voting, which form an odd alchemy by coloring the map to mirror how we have come to color national political divides, they are in turn haunted by the fault-lines of secession, or as by the notion of two republics.  This was the line below which the rights of former slaves were not fully protected by presidents after Lincoln, who were sensitive to the strong Democratic redoubts across the south, as Rutherford B. Hayes feared loosing the south, which, if in 1870 he had won some seats in, in later elections it had gone almost uniformly democratic, as an island in search of protecting its own relative liberties.

5.  Such early data visualizations attempt to describe the historical past in a single map, and struggled valiantly with the limits of the narrative content of a data visualization of two- or three-color blocks.  For the above image is almost blissfully mute about the historical experience what happened on the ground, presenting deep divides whose coloration cannot offer perspectives on or how the institution of enslavement was actually lived.  How could such an experience  be contained by a latitudinal parallel, one might ask, across a divide that has apparently effectively created two separate polities, and how could such a line survive even as socioeconomic relations have shifted in the national terrain?

While old maps can afflict us with nostalgia, it’s impossible to wax nostalgic as we view the divided landscape that this “Compromise” sanctioned and the human costs that it created.  While the dividing line between slave-holding states and a north where the institution of human ownership and chattel was curtailed undoubtedly was informed by practices long existed on the ground, it was perpetuated in the map in odd form, as if naturalized to part of the national terrain.  The contemporary use of primary colors to delineate the divide drawn around and west of Missouri oddly echo contemporary electoral maps both in raising questions about the unity that exists between such a chromatically divided country and the possibility of the future unity with such a fracture-line so prominent.   It is striking that a map in Wikipedia Commons, printed below, also adopts the identical chromatic split to render the Missouri Compromise, as if to naturalize a longstanding national divide:  the historical “Compromise” allowed the institution of slave-holding to survive permit slavery in that state, but set a barrier to its expansion north or across the plains, effectively marginalizing the institution in the country to a lower latitude envisioned as constituting a sharp delineation of red states from blue states in ways that the most recent projections of political elections eerily and somewhat inexplicably still reflect.  The way that this division intentionally or unintentionally haunts the division of space within the map makes the pointed if blunt rhetoric of the infographic so troublingly compelling.


Such symbolic divides seem to haunt maps, as if scars were inscribed upon them, seem “afterimages” of  the historical moments that and experiences that earlier maps encode.  The concept of mapping an after-image is rarely the focus of a strictly cartographical pursuit, but emerges rather with the distribution of the dataset that give style suggestion of making the land speak, or attributing a voice to map signs.  The line of the gasoline-tax divide offers something close to an after-image that continue to haunt its political landscape.  Exploiting our addiction to the data visualization to allow us to look at spatial divides in new ways, the image promises the apparent immediacy and credibility and unmediated access to our representational democracy–from the prevalence of execution of imprisoned men across the Southern states, and the response of mass incarceration mapped in an earlier post, as both political parties responded to the deep anxieties by quintupling our prison populations from 1972, when it stood at 300,000, to over two million today, independently from crime.

Can such afterimages of the institution of slavery be traced in these maps, despite their apparent denial of the past?  The impact of slavery’s institution–and the reluctance to relinquish such divides of difference or to redirect taxes for a public good–may have been all the more indelible in proportion to the institutional forms of promoting racist sentiments and resistance to cultural and institutional changes that promoted changes in the economic status of blacks in the south.   For the authority of both images are deeply informed by the extreme descriptive thin-ness that are endemic to all data visualizations of the country.  The sheen of two-, three-, or four-tone data visualizations which promise to orient us to a polarization of political beliefs that invite us to divine tea leaves in the divides between monochrome color blocks.  But they do so without even stating the local interests or political debates at stake, reducing the “informational” value that tan image that reveals in its county-by-county distribution a clear latitudinal divide.

The use infographics to process information with limited demands on the reader, grabbing visual attention in an over-saturated news market.  But since they provide such compelling pictures and predictions of national debate, even to occupy a prominent place in the political discourse, they demand to be examined in the context of the expanding archive of data visualizations foregrounding divides.  Even without offering local variations to the viewer, each trumpets its own actuality, as if they mapped the country with an apparently definitive objectivity not previously accessible with such immediacy.

Indeed, the alleged objectivity in the medium of infographics might seem to lie in the ease with which they are created.  But it is even more striking how such infographics have resurrected the claims of objectivity, long debunked, in the political map.  Such opaque flatness is exemplified by the alleged inequities illustrated in the Gasoline Tax Map in this posts’ header, about which this post offers meditations–and might be read selectively by scrolling through its images.The data visualization, if based on a selective sampling of few data points, orients viewers to the country by discrepancies in levels of gasoline taxation as disrupting continuity among states, as if to trumpet the purported inequities of the tax burden that result.  Devised by Exxon-Mobil blogger in order to make apparent the case against tax inequality, the map not-so-tacitly echoes the divide of the Civil War of which it seems to constitute an after-image–if not the Missouri Compromise that legislated the distribution of slavery in the United States.  On the one hand, it seems to use the haunting imagery of secession effectively to suggest a breakaway republic-in-a-republic of lower taxes, where big government’s role has been diminished, in a Land of Cockaigne where gas flows free from the pump, unencumbered by government oversight.  On the other, the two-tone tan graphic of course evokes a break-away republic:  for it registers a prominent political divide that still seems to haunt our country’s coherence in ways far more seriously than folks at the American Petroleum Institute who released the map or the Exxon-Mobil blog may in fact realize:  the break of secession, and its aftermath created a traumatic divide in the nation that the gas-tax differential is haunted.

The muteness with which it charts a break between northern and southern states–and alleged transparency of unequal tax burden drivers face–suggests the limited information endemic to selective data visualizations, if not the irresponsiveness with which the data-modeling of national elections’ results pose as evidence of national division.  This post attempts to excavate such images, by considering such images in deeper historical relief.  By opening a history the associations of a divided country that such an info-graphic so pronouncedly reveals by its evocation of a national map, this post examines the way that such visualizations exploit a historical rent in the fabric of the nation, by is tacit invocation of the secession of the southern states.  The traumatic break that was the aftermath of secession and reconstruction is not only evoked in the map, but the info graphic seems to belong to a series of images that replay the divides between north and south along a latitudinal line.

Indeed, the chunky data visualization provokes a reflection for this blogger on the role of maps in the performance of national unity, from the first statistical maps of population devised by Francis Amasa Walker based on the ninth U.S. Census, give viewers a comprehensive picture of the nation, to the political maps of his successor, Henry Gannett, who confronted the problem of visualizing how voters behaved at the polls, to our own attempts to evoke or come to terms with nation divides.  Walker’s maps of racial, immigrant, and economic distributions not only characterized the nation but provided ways to understand the divides of its composition.  Walker’s map of the distribution of “colored population” in the states revealed in its focus on the  presence of African Americans across much of the country according to the 1870 Census–a map revolutionary, to some extent, in including all inhabitants of the United States within the nation’s population, even if its instructions reveal a preoccupation with those of “African blood.”

Colored Population 1872

Color 1870 census

Walker’s map of Walker contrasted to the map engraved by the Liberal German immigrant engraver Edwin Hegesheimer in a visually striking choropleth map of the distribution of slavery across the south quickly provided a strongly pro-Union image, convincingly rooting the economy of the southern states in the institution of slavery to which many wanted to direct attention:

1861 slave population map

While Hergesheimer’s choropleth map created a strong otherness of the southern states economy, and foregrounded the isolation of slavery shortly after ten states had seceded from the nation, when it was sold to support the war effort, the distribution of the electoral vote of 1880 sought to reveal the containment of Southern opposition to the Republican platform.  Does the Gas-Tax map tacitly echo of this earlier divide?  A modern reproduction of the same graphic of the concentration of blacks in the South in 1860 has been argued to reflect a modern map of sociocultural disparities of economic opportunity.

6.  The two-color maps by which Gannett and Hewes charted the distribution of the electoral vote, county-by-county, across the United States, as shown below, by using red to indicate the persistence of antirepublican sentiment across much of the south.   As Gannett and Hewes’ other maps, it demonstrated the new political lay of the land “by graphic method” to unite the “present condition” in a synthetic image:  if maps of the nation had been increasingly displayed in classrooms, post offices, railway stations, and shopping centers around 1860, the Gannett maps of the country’s divided electorate reveal what approaches to be monochrome fields that, while showing the persistence of anti-Republican memories linked to secession, in ways that realize the true trauma in the collective memory in the post-war attempts to create a union.


Vast lingering shades of red

 Library of Congress

Employing such a visually arresting shade of carmine red in the map is not only striking.  It seems to suggest the persistence of a deep resistance among the local population to integration and what would be called the backlash to efforts of Reconstruction, but also to use red as a pigment to describe national division, and promote a narrative of national dividedness that was a strong carry-over from the Civil War, if not to “map” the memory of slave-holding and the Missouri Compromise in an effectively arresting cartographical format, making a retinal impression on the viewer as well as conveying information.  Maps in the color supplement of the Chicago Tribune have been associated with two-color mapping of presidential contests that chart Democratic votes in red in predicting the victory cof William Howard Taft over William Jennings Bryan.  That election divided the country in ways reflected in Henry Gannett’s prominent use of “red” to designate the anti-Republican electorate in the Scribners’ 1883 Historical Atlas.  

Gannett’s map would, as much as illuminate a national divide, suggest the increasing post-war coherence by which representational government was laboriously but precisely fashioned.   The intensity with which the afterimage of Secession made its presence known through successive presidential elections that he and Hewes documented for the 1883 Historical Atlas, and which they followed through the Presidential elections of 1884 and 1888.  The maps provided a tool to trace the persistence of an anti-Republican voting block across the south, in which the divide of Secession materialized in new ways as a part of the Republic.  These images imprinted an image of a divided nation over time, questioning the map’s performance of the nation–seeming to register the memory of secession and autonomy in the aftermath of Reconstruction, and seem to process the deep trauma of this divide through the widespread resistance to the Republican program of Reconstruction perhaps more effectively offered a way to map the memory of secession, and the lingering trauma of the attempted imposition of Reconstruction across the areas with such deeply rooted racial discrimination in the Southern states.

1880-popular-vote-for-hgPopular Vote of 1880 (Library of Congress)

Both the map whose shading reveals the intensity of the popular vote’s distribution and the inset map of electoral votes explicitly capture “afterimages” of southern secession by relying on repeating clear chromatic differences.  The divisions came to be incorporated in a performance of the nation’s continued coherence in a government-sanctioned map, and indeed create a tacit narrative about national division that all readers of the map would have retained.

The mapping of shifting distributions of the vote in later years traced the persistence of this after-image and data visualizations of the nation, which continued in 1884–when Gannett mapped the ration of the predominant vote to the total vote, focussing on the density of Democratic votes in pockets below the latitudinal divide–continue to register the attempts to record the integration of the nation, as well as the persistence of a deep divide, as a persistent carmine registers pointedly in South Carolina, Louisiana and Texas, and parts of Alabama.

1884 {popular vote from totals}Popular Vote of 1884 (Library of Congress)

The reuse of the familiar chromatic format from Gannett’s earlier map of distributing the popular vote is clearly dialogic.  The attempt to map the totality of the nation in 1888–by which time the carmine block of red-hued anti-Republican votes,  long understood as concentrated in the Southern states, had gained a considerable collective density in the Deep South, which shift from rosy pink to carmine on either side of the latitudinal line–with the deeper carmine reserved for South Carolina and Mississippi, and north Carolina and Tennessee and even Alabama fading to a far lighter shade of pink.  (The pronounced pockets of deep red in South Carolina and on the lower banks of the Mississippi, suggest,as well as a probable suppression of the black vote, afterimages of Southern independence.)

1888 ratio map to predominant votePopular Vote of 1888 (Library of Congress)

The sequence of maps identified an unconscious “afterimage” that reference the symbolization of unity in the country, but also the pressures that threaten to tear it apart.  Using the conceit of an “afterimage” to describe the map serves to illuminate its very historicity–and the way that the map narrates a story of the unity that maps such as that of the Missouri Compromise created, or that the first maps to register southern secession, from Harper’s Magazine in 1861–expressed northern and southern states as two differently shaded entities to frame a crisis in national identity rendered in explicitly cartographical terms.  The different shades used to depict regions the initially seceding states that followed South Carolina in early 1861 and join the Confederacy by May precipitated the Civil War–and secession created a fracture line in the country, in which the northern states were shaded deeply in gray.  Several “border states” elected to remain in the Union; the Harper’s map displayed their “comparative area” east of the Rockies, etching a spatial division that left an imprint that has been difficult to erase from the land, if often difficult to sharply define–whose after-images can be readily recognized in subsequent maps.


As much as reflect the trauma of secession, to be sure, Gannett’s maps traced the afterimage of secession and the rebuilding of the nation during the trauma of Reconstruction:  if Freud argued, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, that traumatic events, rather than really experienced or fully recognized as they occur, but are consciously processed only after the fact, when they are informally or formally remembered, the recognition of Secession was understood in Reconstruction as voters were asked to participate in a shared political process.  In an age when the unity of the continental United States had just been processed, as in the “Washington” that the future Confederate Matthew Fontaine Maury designed shortly before the south’s secession.  The map designed to be exhibited in classrooms, rail stations, shopping centers, and in window display cases, symbolizing the nation, was ringed by a ribbon of presidential faces, provided an emblem of sovereign unity, the data visualizations that Hewes and Gannett created offered less a mosaic of states than a mosaic of two divided political parties.

Muary's Washington Wall Map for schools, window display in shopping districts, public life

It was a map of an area rich with unsettled local resentments, and of oppositional divides, the likes of which we have, not so oddly, only recently begun to see recurring once again, but were, it feels like, also very much always with us, but just repressed or something that we were just not able to look at or recognize, and ready to suppress.   If Gannett’s map seems to knit together these regions, in the “Gas Tax” map on the Exxon blog, the two halves seem to be pried apart once more–without recognizing the trauma of its historical division–in ways that erase the memories that earlier maps so clearly tacitly preserved.

We are of course not new at all to such symbolic prying apart of the nation state.  The intensity of the frequencies of colors of like red and blue to designate differences in the map seem to appeal to how color-divides continue to haunt the land.  Although “afterimages” of an optical nature are the result of retinal impressions especially intense colors or sudden bursts of light leave in the eye–whether in optometry exams or after staring at sunsets or, less pleasurably, backlit computer screens.  Such bursts of light imprint the fovea and leave after-effects, continuing even we close our eyes, in our retinas, that float in apparent day-glo hues that seem suspended in our line of sight, and only fade with time.  In the manner that these oddly colored images hover in our field of vision as disembodied forms, removed spatial bearings, mapped events can haunt a place.  The scares evident in specific maps can act, superimposed upon space, like scars, capturing divides that continue to haunt data visualizations.  Their survival seems an interesting extension of the analogy we draw between maps and vision, even if data visualizations don’t appeal to perceptual models, and are oddly echoed in the strong colors that data visualizations adopt, as if to leave similarly strong afterimages in our minds, despite their relative historical poverty.

7.  The existence of such cartographical ‘afterimages’ seems an especially appropriate concept to use to discuss the chromatic divide red v. blue that has materialized the nation’s divide in televised newscasts, soon after the diffusion of color TV became a standard source from which we derive news information.  While some of the first maps to use chromatic difference to suggest a divide that haunted the nation–the divide of Secession–did so quite consciously to depict the survival of oppositional polarization in a vision of the nation–here crystallized around the reaction to the continued presence of federal troops in the south and program of Reconstruction–the conceit of recording such an “afterimage” has become more unconscious, and more disruptive.  We have read the divides of recent presidential elections so often that they seem to be etched into our cerebral cortices after having followed the twists and turns of the 2000 election, dividing states “blue” or “red” in essential ways, but are shocked at how the line of latitude still scars the nation’s political topography.  The divides mapped offer less of a metaphorical window or mirror of the territory than a reflection of the after-images of divides or differences that continue to inhabit different practices of political representation across the land, as if to offer a divide along which issues of national significance are still prone fall.

The use of “red” to reference Republican states is often attributed to Tim Russert‘s political commentary on the aftermath of election night in 2000.  The two-color divide gained a symbolic currency as electoral votes were tabulated with continued inconclusiveness, the evidence of alternating colors for political parties in televised electoral results was revealed by Kevin Drum to have lacked clear identification with a party in the color-coded electoral maps shown from Presidential elections 1976–states for Jimmy Carter were mapped “red” in 1976 and 1980, and states voting in majority for Walter Mondale were in 1984; if states voting for George Bush were shown in red in the color televised results of 1988 election, states footing for Clinton were mapped in red in the presidential elections of 1992 and 1996.  (Across the border, in Canada, “blue” is claimed by the Conservative party, designating the Liberals as “red”, and New Democratic Party “orange,” though it leans further left.)  But although states the voted for Democrats Hubert Humphrey and Ed Muskie in 1968 were colored in red on the nightly news, the Wikipedia electoral maps have retrospectively canonized the identification of red as Republican since the visualization of the results of the presidential election of 2000.


However, the election might be best known in relation to this post for how it revealed a similar division, not to sectorization, on behalf of Wallace’s Independent South-based candidacy, largely viewed on TV in black and white:

Cronkite 68 Election NIght

But in 2000 the use of red to reference “Republican states” was almost naturalized, and by 2004 the opposition became among the words of the year, so clearly was the visualization embedded in viewers’ minds as something that made common sense.  For William Safire,  Russert was “the leading popularizer of a blue-Democrat, red-Republican assignment [which soon] took hold nationally”:  but Russert was such a huge television personality valued for his skill at both distilling and framing news into bite-sized yet informative, that his adoption lent currency to the division as a compelling symbol, credit for inventing the dismaying division of choreographic unity aside.  The image of a chromatically divided country took hold as it crystallized in common use or a collective consciousness, perhaps for the very reason that it makes a single story about the nation so difficult to tell.  So dominant is the storyline of division, it is difficult to orient oneself to Gannett’s statistical map and remember that the light azure signifies Republican votes, and the carmine intensity of the south reveals the relative density of a Democratic preference.

While we recognize something like a similar scar looking at the map of levels of gas taxation that break along a familiar latitudinal divide in the header to this post, the survival of the scar of secession is so quickly recognized because of how it disrupts the notion of the map as a performance and representation of the unity of the nation, however, and the ways that images disrupt national unity suggest the death of the map’s primacy as a tool for embodying national identity, and its rise for spatializing a pie chart in potent ways.  Of course, the new separatism is quite new, and wasn’t so visible after the results, say, of the Senate elections of 2008, although these were particularly distinctive in their Democratic tilt, despite the quasi-separatist victory of George Wallace in his 1968 presidential candidacy as an Independent:

2008 Senate Races

But the recent resurgence of Southern separatism, even if temporary, makes the map of the 1880 popular vote particularly interesting, as a way of narrating national unity–if not a symbolic restoration of the nation’s symbolic coherence–at a time of apparently increasingly bitter national divides.

An overly familiar latitudinal divide was resurrected in the “Gas Tax Map” first posted on the Exxon-Mobil blog to suggest the steep differences of what drivers pay at the pump.  The map does not detail the variations of gas prices per gallon, however, but the taxes that it suggest create a policy of “passing on costs” to drivers.  Readers of data visualizations are immediately capitulated into the role of news analysts, who can read the legible national divides rendered in the monolithic blocks of bright colors along which one country breaks.  The aesthetic of data visualizations respond to the increasing value on the art of readily putting results at our finger-tips–of a piece with the shrinking horizon of expectations of online news, but also to the condensation they provide that seem to underlie an actual map:  they parse the political preferences as filtered through representational democracy, investing regions with contrasting–if not opposing–ideological divides, as if to expose the fault-lines in the democratic state.  For they respond to the demand for sources of ready to digest information by arranging the division among voting preferences on not too unfamiliar fracture lines.

8.  Our current collective fascination with how data visualizations reduce a problem and sum up a status quo seem to find their corollary in how the chromatic division the land are accepted as explanatory tools to decode the politics of our conflicted present.  This leads us to valorize images that obscure their historical poverty, and privilege distributions only over the short-term.  But if they perpetuate the restricted temporal horizon, in privileging the access to the things as they are like a snapshot of the nation, we privilege the false definitiveness of the spatial distribution of data as if it were transparent or comprehensive–in ways we know it will never be–and promote the notion that the “visualizations” they offer reflect reality in a definitive way.

While we admire the elegant aesthetic of reading the purported clarity of such divisions of space, the thin-ness that they create tease us through the familiarity of other lines of spatial division, which they reify without offering any way to explore.  For by substituting the actuality of their findings for a historical reading of the very ways they map space, they focus and limit our attention to the present moment’s actuality–or the superficiality of their snapshots of spatial division.  The odd and largely unstated assumption of the latitudinal divide Cohen traced across the country reveals the staying power of a division, an “afterimage” of a political divide and resurrecting the notion of a divided nation.  Examining precedents of mapping of fault-lines of national divides place in relief the very historical precedents data visualizations erase and help process reasons for the persistence of a fault-line over time.  Detecting the survival of such “after-images” offers an excavation of the historical depth of such spatial divides, and of throwing even the most generic data visualization into a slightly more subtle temporal relief.

Gas Tax

The divide traced between northern and southern states traced in an infographic that seems to advertise the “Gas-Tax Latitudinal Divide” offers an invitation to meditate on the longstanding holding power of a map sign, and excavate the transmission of such a stark divide between northern and southern states’ political cultures, and the historical depth of the division that the selective criteria that these infographics foreground, otherwise sacrificed in its transcendent view. Reading the cartographical rhetoric of the “map” of gasoline taxation reveals an after-image of secession that contrasts to the messiness of recent electoral maps.  It gains new relief when placed in a historical context of the contested nature of political unity that maps create–or disrupt–in rendering regional unity, as the image that is so readily apprehended as an unfair division of tax burden suggests alternate visions of public space, if not of the daily presence of federal government, which many now seem to which would just go away.

Whether the latitudinal line of southern secession inhabit the Gasoline Tax Map, the data visualization it presents embodies the separatism of a region, whose coherence long erased from national maps.  The divide along the 37th parallel, adopted in American law to demarcate the space permitting and sanctioning slavery in the Missouri Compromise that prohibited slavery north of the latitudinal parallel 36°30′ strikingly recurs in tracing lower gasoline taxes across the United States.  Certain cartographical signs often seem inscribed upon the land, as if revealing traces that recur in data visualizations at different times.  They suggest the survival of such an “afterimage” seem to reveal divisions as if they were rooted in the topography of a place, as if they were “afterimages” of a deeply drawn political divides that have continued to shape the very landscapes they ostensibly describe.  Such after-images are far too abstract for cartographical practice, but emerge as familiar fault-lines that can be readily recognized in distributions of datasets:  they arrange the land as if it its divisions could independently signify across time.

9.  The overly tidy geographical mapping of political polarization to be sure mirrors the divide in vision of government in daily life often reified and naturalized as a dichotomous divide of Red vs. Blue States. We have read the divides of recent presidential elections so often that they seem to be etched into our cerebral cortices after having followed the twists and turns of the 2000 election, dividing states “blue” or “red” in essential ways, but are shocked at how the line of latitude still scars the nation’s political topography.  The divides mapped offer less of a metaphorical window or mirror of the territory than a reflection of the after-images of divides or differences that continue to inhabit different practices of political representation across the land, as if to offer a divide along which issues of national significance are still prone fall.

Recent maps of the divide or break between “red” and “blue” states are being dismantled to a certain extent in recent infographics, which trace how migration patterns have partly dissolved the clear lines of distinction in purple states in recent years.  But the power with which this color scheme presented tools to trace the changing political landscape of the United States emerged suddenly and quite sharply in American politics and on televised news reports of election-night when in 2000 the NBC graphics department decided to designate a national divide that explained the breakdown of the vote in a presidential election in a seemed a compelling way.  The map was popular as it revealed a fractured landscape of electoral preferences, and occasioned continued glossing as being the result of economic interests, a deep social or cultural divide, or difference in lifestyle that would somehow provide a way of understanding the changing political landscape of the country, rather than a purely political divide, in quite definitive terms.  For the gas-tax latitudinal divide not only maps questions of taxation; the status of taxing gas taxes maps a region marked by federal suspicion, and reluctance to accept taxation for gasoline.

The stark chromatic rift of consensus is rendered all the starker, curiously, in infographics used to process votes in contemporary politics, as if to further naturalize a divide within the nation.  Even in  map projections of the future composition of the US Congress, such as the interactive projections the website of the New York Times offers readers to ask us to predict how the outcome of mid-term 2014 elections for the US Senate by our own intuitions, we can imagine the break of states along a blue v. red divide.  And conceit recurred, most recently, in Election Day 2014, when the red split apart with apparent unity, now including much of the northwest:

Design Your Own Electoral MapNew York Times

Is it a coincidence that the problem of race, long suppressed, was resurgent in this election, when a far whiter, and far older, selection of voters made their voices known at the polls.

White 75%

While the interactive visualization of the balance of power is powerful, the Congress that will assemble from January 2015 will reflect a resurgence of a historical divide separating northern from southern states, and a similar run of red in the northwest.  The red that spans the “Gulf States” below recalls a time when electoral politics broke along something like a difference in vision of the nation, of the sort that was already mapped so clearly evident in the resistance to taxing gasoline used as this post’s header from the Exxon-Mobil blog, which begs to be read as bearing information of the very sort such infographics contain.

One of the first infographics ever designed, based on a far more detailed statistical map that tabulated the popular vote by county, was designed by Henry Gannett, then Superintendent of the Census, to process and mend the divide of political polarization after the presidential election of 1880, when states divided over the question of Reconstruction–but when the results of the popular vote revealed a more complex picture, even if one that in large part echoes the Gas-Tax divide.

1880-popular-vote-mapLibrary of Congress

This dividing line–and Gannett’s mapping of the central trauma, the war over and the aims of secession no longer sustainable, of reconstruction, mark something of a divide that has haunted the very lines on which the electoral votes across the nation have often continued to divide–a divide that seems to have solidified in political institutions, if one looks at the breakdown of the electoral votes, and how the South voted democratic as a block by 1880, if Rutherford Hayes won votes in 1876 both along the Mississippi and in South Carolina and Florida.


Library of Congress (detail of above)

The echo of this divide that has appeared in the recent midterm elections of 2010 suggested the naturalization of a similar break, as Republican candidates ran, on an almost national platform, based on the vilification of the current president, with strikingly analogous results–if “red” now designated a majority of votes for Republican candidates, the sense one gains, looking at the electoral map, is a collective refusal to accept the paralysis in Washington that was blamed on a Democratic president.

The barrage of maps encountered on election night 2014 strikingly replicated the familiar divide that once more divided the nation.  In an age of immediate news and cultivation of the snapshot of political preference, many might even bemoan the absence of readily available consolidated results of elections, which are run by individual states, and not the federal government, so habituated are we to making available a synoptic view as if on demand–it is a lament that, with the lack of a single source, the map cannot be readily created and put on view with the immediacy increasingly demanded and required.  (The time required for mapping political preferences, albeit dramatically reduced in recent years, to generate data maps of elections even as the results are first reported, has lead us to notice the lack of a national standard for the reporting of electoral results, and leads to the “difficulty” with which different states’ polls close at different times–in another instance of how reality has trouble producing the data visualizations we might otherwise demand.)

First results

NYT #2

New York Times

While Virginia remained “blue” by the end of the night, as Illinois, one did not even need to know, implies the data visualization, a political rationale for how the votes broke along the latitudinal divide.  The progression that continued to western states suggest a continuity of opposition to a status quo–or to a President with whom Republicans persistently identified their Democratic opponents, as they tried to make mid-term elections a personal referendum on a President with qualified popularity across much of the Southern half of the country–and those states where the President’s popularity has not that recently plummeted.  Although the Republican Party and Tea Party folk tried to treat the mid-terms as something of an imaginary referendum–as if this would validate a shift in the country’s political composition, and could revise the results of the Presidential election of 2012 or repeal of the ACA–the very notion of running against Obamacare (as preposterous as it might seem) evoked a frightening fold along the latitudinal divide.

Last Map Tues Election Eve

New York Times

Of course, the mid-term elections assembled perhaps the whitest and the oldest electorate in some time, as resistance to Obama’s presidency mobilized much of the southern vote.  And for that 36.6% of those eligible who did vote were excited to vote by the slogan, as much as the idea, of defunding Obamacare–and, for right-wing bloggers, presenting the election as a grounds for a decisive rollback the President’s agenda–and opportunity to re-map a country actually being center-right:  as if misconstruing the ‘mid-term’ elections as a midterm examination President Obama had flunked.  The divide between states by primary colors of course concealed the fact that an astoundingly low number of the electorate participated–a number that fell below one third of those edible to vote in Missouri, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Tennessee.  It was with considerable presences that CNN’s national correspondent, John King, asked viewers “Do you live in Red America or Blue America?” before a map of the potential results of races in the House of Representatives, earnestly informing the nation, “if you live here, you live in Blue America,” but “if you live here, you live in Red America,” before a map that he claimed simply “says it all.”

Blue America or Red America?CNN

One can’t attribute low turn out in the election to the finality of the infographic–although this CNN data visualization surely provides less of a mirror or image of the country than John King boasts, and does seem to disenfranchise the members of the television audience to which King speaks, evoking the inevitability of the current complexion of the nation as if it were a medical patient.  The limited amount of information the infographic offered viewers, and the limited analysis John King presented, however suggest the dangers of treating the map as if it spoke–or as if it dictated the region from which one was from.  For rather than using the map as a performance of the nation, King seems to have relished use of the map as a symbol of national splintering, in the ways that have become increasingly current since the election of 2000, gesticulating as if to fashion a consensus from the division made palpable on the screen behind his hands.

The map of purported voting preferences–this said on account of the quite historically low turnout, skewed to both a whiter and older electorate–has become a bit of a totem for 24-7 news stations, descriptive of a land beset by political paralysis.  It was difficult to frame consensus in as during the polarized political opinion in the aftermath of Reconstruction after the Civil War, but there was considerable interest in trying to frame and assess that consensus within national maps, and indeed anxiety about the lack of post-war consensus that would lead to the formation of a government.  In 1880, when maps provided such important tools of investing symbolic unity in the relatively recently expanding nation, the map provided a way to create such a symbolic condensation of public opinion that seemed to stand as an icon of representative democracy, although the images have taken on a deeper and more introspective tenor in recent years, as if the voting preferences for different parties provided a reflection–seeing the map as mirror–of what the nature of our nation is.  But the polarization of politics at the end of Reconstruction was of course of necessity bridged–if messily, and in ways that created more of a scar of inequality than necessary in the view of some–or attempted to do so, whereas the pseudo-maps that are infographics which we produce  or, today, see produced  are examples of how maps lie, and how we rely on them to frame our national unity–and to mend the growing gap evident in visualizations of the national electorate.  For the notion of mapping national unity goes to the point of peacefully moving past the national divisions of an election, and embodying consensus in the face of a divisive election.

10.  If such data visualizations perpetuate a “red” versus “blue” dichotomy that arrests the eye, it obscures areas of grey.  Such areas are more evident in a map of Senate races.  Although it distorts voters’ preferences–actual voting preferences of the electorate are often effectively silenced or erased by their amalgamation in a single dominant hue– the precursor of modern infographics to which U.S. historian Susan Shulten recently called attention as helping process political polarization shortly after the Civil War creates a far more detailed accounting for local divides on a county-by-county level.   Such maps work with considerably greater thin-ness than the colors employed in Gannett’s statistical map.  Gannet’s map showed a nation strikingly divided on somewhat similar lines in a similarly polarizing election that was rooted in a clearer political divide, but where the salience of the divide was closely examined.  Indeed, the current map manufactures a divide along lines we’ve become a bit overly familiar, as if to present the election as a verdict on the divide between parties and in the nation, although the current divide seems most likely to be less sharply pronounced than that one hundred and thirty five years ago.  The greater possibilities for engagement in Gannett’s tabulation of the popular vote, made not on-demand for a news cycle but with the care of hindsight, suggests a far more subtle shading of the country to explore.

Gannett remapped the recently reasserted unity of the country in an attempt to heal–or historicize–how it divided into two camps over the issue of Reconstruction then championed by the Republican party’s platform–and did so in ways that first broached the question of such a political divide.  Although in his map, red signifies counties with a majority of Democratic vote, the chromatic construction of the map queried the unity of the nation around the question of its political representation, using the available body to map county by county.  (Despite the charges of widespread fraud and poor tallying of votes in the contested 1876 election, in which the winner of the popular vote, Samuel J. Tilden, lost the election, the map was also something of an elegant manifesto of its own of the presidential election’s legitimacy.)  In using infographics to process the political polarization of his own day, Gannett first chose red votes to designated counties voting Democratic, and against Reconstruction, shading the surface of the increasingly common map of the United States to distill how political divisions first mapped onto clear geographic lines in the Presidential election of 1880, when the tabulation of national votes was first tabulated with accuracy, as if to compensate for the widespread suppression of votes and gridlock associated with the US Presidential election of 1876.

Gannett rendered the distribution of votes in a qualitatively descriptive elegant fashion, worthy of Nate Silver, to provide an retrospective optic to visualize the political divide in the country in detail.  It recognized as a resistance to Reconstruction at a local level that deeply rooted in several southern counties, broadly split along the divide of the Missouri Compromise, in something like a growing scar across the land.

1880-popular-vote-mapLibrary of Congress

The map however seems and attempt to process a traumatic moment of which we have lost sight, which demands to be excavated for its own uneven topography because it is such a compelling achievement in revealing a complex engagement with issues–and indeed a varied surface of political debate that impels one to regard it as if it lay at the bottom of a palimpsest, over with later layers of distributions have accrued but can be peeled off, lending something like three-dimensionality to the infographic itself.

One might start from considering what it means to discuss the survival of such a similar divide across the nation.  Such broad brush strokes of regional differences, despite clear local variations in tone, suggest an apparently contiguous block of red across the southern states that is eery to recognize.  Although the aesthetic contrast between the two data maps is evident, both snapshots suggest the depth of a diachronic division along parallel 36°30′ N, a line along which the country has often folded, despite the flattened nature of the polling data synoptically digested in both images of divides that plague the nation.  The divide is echoed as an after image  thirty six and half degrees north of the equator in the distribution of levels of gasoline taxation, as if an after-image of a line of political secession has haunted the political landscape of the American south, that appears a unified block of voting red:

Latitude in Gannet's MapLibrary of Congress (detail)

Such data visualizations reveal a persistent divide or dissonance between the geographic unity of continental United States from their vision of political coherence.  Schulten argued that Gannett’s statistical map promoted a new understanding of the country’s division despite its political polarization, and provided a way for readers to struggle with understandings of national unity–in an early antecedent to the aesthetic of the infographic–and breach the historical depth of local or regional political divisions.   The images not only created an after-image of secession, but created a powerful surrogate for the relation to the nation, and indeed peacefully progressing to the conclusion of a contested election.  It maps the depths of divides absent from the historical flatness–and short-term purview–endemic to the tastes that datamaps both exploit and respond to.

Excavating the “after-image” that lies within an infographic offers a way of investigating the flattening of time that infographics all too often both perpetuate and perform:  the conceit of the “afterimage” provides a way to unpack the flatness of an infographic, and offers something of a remedy for the specter of the short-term that haunts most data visualizations–if not a way to investigate the presence of the past that lurks, as if within the map that lies underneath its surface.  For whereas infographics foster a reduction of historical perspectives on their interpretation, curtailing the long-term in the pathologically short-term attention span or ingrained “short-termism,” acknowledging after-images offer a way to unpack the false claims of comprehensiveness they promote, excavating the map of political divides that underlie how infographics divide the nation.  Detecting after-images provides a way to uncover the historical depth by which such spatial divides formed.

While we’ve often forgotten the above maps, which have only been recently resurrected to the eye of history from the dustbin of data visualizations, the divide traced between northern and southern states in the “Gas-Tax Latitudinal Divide Map” provided in the Exxon-Mobil blog offers an invitation to meditate on the longstanding holding power of a map sign.  It might also offer an invitation to excavate the transmission of such a stark divide between northern and southern states’ political cultures, and the historical depth of the division that the selective criteria info graphics foreground, and which are sacrificed in its assumption of an Apollonian transcendent view of the nation-state.

11.  The way that data visualizations function as maps in the performance of statehood has been increasingly disrupted in a range of info-graphics.  The disruptions such visualizations chart reveal the persistence of poverty across certain areas of the country–a poverty we far too often naturalize, or which is absent from the national maps that we draw and the divides that we emphasize within them.  It’s striking that the very divide mapped in the header to this post–the Gasoline-Tax Divide–creates an eye-grabbing continuity across many of the same southern states that jumps out within the contemporary maps of the national distribution of well-being, a county-by-county assessment of QOL (an alternative to GDP, taking a sextet of life-expectancy, income, education, disability, obesity, and unemployment, rather than only a financial metric).

Indeed, the disparities in the Gas Tax might reflect a reluctance to impose taxes on poorer and relatively non-urban areas–and imposing a tax at the pump would cause undue duress.  But the weird continuity of orange, even if a snapshot based on present-day statistics and metrics, no doubt conceals the very sort of historical context that the narrow temporal perspective of most infographics tend to erase–even as they structure data by a geographic map or interface.

County Ranking of Happiness--Education, unemployment, disability, income, life expectancy, obesity

The above map is less of a descriptive vehicle, to be sure, than a compelling tool to structure data.  “It is a cold thing, a map, humorless and dull, born of calipers and a draughtsman’s board,” wrote the twentieth-century pioneering aviatrix Berryl Markham–who rarely relied on them, to judge by her surprise in reaching Newfoundland in her pioneering transatlantic flight.  But the infographic is far colder, more stripped of quantitative detail about place, the socio-cultural mosaics evident in data visualizations offer provocations to dig deeper beneath their surface records of the short-term.  As if to conceal its relative poverty, employing cartographical outlines to organize data in a transcendent view seems designed to endow the data with apparent objectivity and legitimacy that validate its relevance to the work of imagining a nation.  Even the most abstract data visualizations adapt cartographical conventions to frame transcendent views that provoke questions of national unity.

Every so often, the divides revealed in illuminate otherwise hidden divides that haunt a landscape.  If the conventions of mapping often naturalizing spatial divisions, data distributions expose deeply drawn divides in how maps work to organize national space.  Even as the scientistic claims of mapping has so grown in considerable ways in computer-assisted data visualizations, the transcendent view that they offer conceals–even as it reveals–significant divides that have accumulated over time, and inform the political histories which they work to create. For all the flatness or superficial oversimplification of spatial difference suggested in the three-color snapshots that info-graphics provide, even the crudest divides become palimpsests ready to be excavated and illuminated when they are placed in relation to a long-term.

The romance of detecting such afterimages of southern secession offers a corrective to claims for rendering the division of the status quo that the seductive form of data visualizations as registers of a current inequality in levels of taxation.  It might be profitable to read the divide as an echo of the far deeper inequalities that underlie the nation’s terrain, and its bitter-tasting residues.  Divisions that underlie the symbolic unity of the lower forty eight are evident elsewhere.  They recur, for example, in the different legal cultures of each state, the different attitudes to imprisonment evident in topographies of the widespread mass incarceration of minorities in correctional facilities across so many southern Gulf Coast states, mapped by Elwin Wyly against a backdrop of the share of African American males within that total incarcerated population.


While Wyly’s 2004 map concentrates on a clustering of Federal Prisons, state prisons, military barracks, and larger private correctional facilities and police lockups outside of a  national context, it raises clear questions of a culture of incarceration specific to a region of states.

Many of the states that lie below the parallel that defines the “Gas Tax Latitudinal Divide” were slow to abolish the poll tax, as was stipulated in the 24th amendment adopted in 1964–if Texas did not do so until 2009, Virginia, North Carolina, and Alabama were slow to add themselves to the list, and it was never ratified by seven southern states, including Mississippi.  And even if the US Supreme Court has recently struck down government oversight of specific states’ election laws as stipulated in the Voting Rights Act, to protect minority disenfranchisement in those regions with ingrained histories of discrimination, the depth of the political divides that define the south are still difficult to map.  If an earlier post in this blog described the deep divides of disparities between insured and uninsured Americans that many images of the nation conceal–or fail to illuminate for all the seductiveness of their totality–and asked about the motivations of these blindspots–and large numbers of uninsured across much of southern states from Texas to Florida.

% Uninsured in States Saying No

12.  The deepest discontent about the representation and concealment of social and cultural divides in infographics lies in the relative absence of local context–or of historical depth–that would offer adequate contextual representations.  Even as they vaunt their own authorship, most infographics are hampered by blinders of the short-term.  The  dilemma of the short-term horizon of infographics so readily produced from the multiple databases daily generated in the twenty-first century haunts the pervasive nature of their use, and especially haunts the necessarily incomplete images of imagined objectivity they offer.

Even as we have come to be suspect of the objectivity of the map, we’ve come to accept the objectivity of the infographic as convenient forms to grasp or process social and political changes, despite the rather insidious erasure of context in their embodiment of a strictly short-term image of opinion, political preference, or social divides.  What would it look like to express or imagine a historical perspective on the divides traced on a map, mapping something that was less a statistical snapshot than an image of the relative continuity of deeply drawn divides?  For an infographic acquires an illusion of temporal depth when one considers it less as a distribution of inequalities, but an “after-image” of the depth of earlier divides.

If Ferguson, MO is a predominantly African-American as a community, low voter turnout means that not only are its police force mostly white, but so are its elected officials, mayor, local commissions, community groups, and parks board–and indeed, its neighborhoods reflect the persistence of starkly segregated communities that seems typical of such suburbs, according to the American Community Survey of 2010, although Ferguson transformed quickly from a predominantly white suburb to one predominantly identifying African-American.  It was in such a strongly segregated sense of space that the unarmed Michael Brown was shot and killed on Canfield Drive off West Florissant, after he allegedly “intimidated” a 240 lb. white policeman and refused to “clear the road.”  Brown’s death has sparked a series of protests at the unjust actions of the suburb’s largely white police force–making it the flashpoint of a problem across America.  The recognition across America of the injustice of the ruling might lead one to re-evaluate Rand Paul’s mean-spirited observation in Time magazine that “Something is wrong with criminal justice in America.”  Paul writes as if the Department of Justice weren’t troubled by the million black faces of those incarcerated in the skyrocketing federal prison which has since 1980 grown by 800%, observing caustically that “The failure of the war on poverty has created a culture of violence” which placed Ferguson police “in a nearly impossible situation.”

But the problems that this population no longer feels served by a system of justice may be the far deeper threat:  and the persistence of disenfranchisement creates a deep sense of alienation and indeed a geography of alienation, as much as being created by a culture of violence encouraged by the “war on drugs,” or demanding a reassertion of “moral codes that have slowly eroded and left us empty with despair” and politicians who have betrayed the public trust by encouraging the “poverty trap.”  Yet news reports attend to how much marijuana was in Michael Brown’s system, and the inability of police to deal with the violent nature of urban life–as if that would warrant shooting at a man without a gun in a suburban setting.  Such pieties as Paul espouses conceal the outsized dangers that all young black men face of twenty-one times to be shot dead by police than white teenagers:  a difference between 31 young black men shot per million by police for every 1.5 young white man.  Paul is quick to identify the danger for black men as the product of high-crime areas:  but the suburban community of Ferguson was hardly a center of crime.  Reform of justice might begin from a bigger rethinking of the inequalities of race, indeed, and the geography of alienation that afflict urban and extra-urban areas alike, a geography perpetuated by the mythistory of the South and its perpetuation of segregation.

Renewed violence in the wake of the verdict that did not prosecute Darren Wilson, the officer who shot the unarmed teenager Michael Brown, spurred local and international protest at the miscarriage of clearing the Wilson of wrong-doing, even as many protestors were arrested; a rash of tweets exploded across the nation, most intensely in the Missouri region, the eastern half of the US, and the largest cities on the west coast.

Twitter Map

Can we start from recognizing the costs of the deep southern separatism on the ground?  Even as President Obama noted “is not just an issue for Ferguson, [but] this is an issue for America” that “there are issues in which the law feels as if it is being applied in a discriminatory fashion” that can’t be “tamped down,” Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, perceiving himself increasingly isolated, called for the National Guard to quell discontent at the failure to convict the officer who had repeatedly shot and killed Brown at point blank range.

13.  The atlas that emerges from these of data visualizations reveals traces of the past, to be sure, and deep fractures in the topography of representational democracy that single infographics elide that undergird Ferguson.  But attention to the persistence of afterimages might offer ways to read the infographic against its conclusive finality, and might help to contextualize the stories that the infographics tell about the nation, as well as the echo-chamber of the infographic that the repeated symbolization of national divides creates.

At the risk of offering a presentist argument, such a reading might even enrich the cartographical template beneath infographics’ color-enhanced veneer:  one should be able to cultivate a skill of cartographical interpretation to better illuminate divides that haunt the data science, and scars not otherwise clearly revealed in their distributions, by noting the traces of an afterimage able to be recognized only within the semantic space of the map that underlies the data distribution, and by which the simplicity of its often overly crisp coloration can be read in greater depth.  The cartographic format of data-visualization offers a timeless two-dimensional rendering that vaunts its transparent rendering of divides.

The act of excavating the existence and persistence of afterimages is foreign to actual cartographical practice–or the aura of objectivity that is invested in a map as a comprehensive collation of accurate readings of place.  But the premium on dividing space into monochrome blocks seem too clearly borrowed from television screens to qualify as being seen as an actual map meant to orient the viewer to political divides than inventive ways to condense the current electoral habits of the voting class.  Excavating afterimages in the blunt medium of the infographic is something of a strategy for reading that seeks to puncture the adoption of apparent objectivity of what might be called a cartographical point of view that national infographics and electoral maps all too often assume for themselves.

Scrutinizing the afterimage that might be present in any map–or data visualization that invoke a map-like objectivity–becomes most apparent when one recognizes something like the embodiment of a spatial divide in map signs that betrays signs of the long-term, which the adoption of the alleged objectivity of a map obscures; as if removed from the subject they chart, the divide documented in the above data vis is not only an objective break in tax levels, but an underlying disruption as an afterimage that invites us to explore, or conduct something like an archeology, of the divide that it traces, and investigate the very opacity of the data visualization as a historical construction.

Even for those not overly familiar with mapping techniques will recognize their signs and conventions as the trigger of a spatial divide seared into our map-reading minds:  the recurrence of a clear parallel as the line of the gasoline-tax that has been newly diffused by Exxon-Mobil to document disparities  in gas prices across the United States.  For it also testifies to a particular powerful afterimage of a continental divide that continue to haunt its political landscape, and indeed the relation of a region to the prospect of national unity–perhaps more deeply than the divides so often drawn so often in recent years between red states and blue states.  For it traces a transmitted border of regional separatism as much as tracing a line of the inequality of the imposition of taxes on gasoline that suggests the possibility of lower gas taxes for a select few, rather than anything like a federal policy or situation that federal laws might remedy:  the map reflects local refusals of accepting the inequity of further taxes at the pump, rather than it reveals an unequal distribution of tax rates.

Gas Tax

gas keyAmerican Petroleum Institute

Despite the intent of its corporate promoters to relieve Americans from the apparent shackles of unequal taxation at the gas pump, the graphic unwittingly builds upon a deep distrust of national government even if it seems unconscious of what lies behind the very division that it seems so intent to track and promote in revealing the disparity of the gas tax.  (The curtailed short-sightedness of the infographic appeals to the short-term self-interest of the consumer or driver and effaces the historicity of the latitudinal divide.)

14.  Data visualizations recall the new discourse-functions such early printed maps claimed, and as “after-images” of the earlier divides they traced.  But they also perpetuate them.  The after-images we see in the “Gas-Tax Latitudinal Divide” are compelling since they refract the performance of inventing national cohesiveness in maps, and of picturing and re-inventing social unity, as much as frame a “hidden gas tax campaign” of which we have been largely unaware and which needs to be revealed.  Even if the map distributed by Exxon-Mobil is intended to reveal the undue impositions of the federal state across the country, it reminds us of the continued fractures of political space maps sought to paper over in rendering a national collective in ways that would fulfill their role as crucial reference points in the performance of statehood.   The “national inequalities” it illustrates might be placed within the longstanding resistance in this region to accepting federal presence, or seen as residual resistance to federal presence; but the mapping of resistance to further taxes at the pump are compelling because they suggest a intentionally disrupted performance of statehood.  By recuperating the situated nature of the historical production of such images, we can start to challenge the aggressive rhetoric of objectivity they adopt and their short-sighted aims.

It might make more sense to read the context in which data maps work to create the country, rather than how they indicate or present a set of traits transmitted over time.  But one cannot fail to be struck by how a split between northern and southern states arrestingly suggests an enduring dividing line of deep historical resonance, as if its cartographical signs could speak across time.  The clear divide that the rejection of taxes on gasoline seems to map among state legislature south of the 37th parallel that creates such a strong Gasoline-Tax Divide echoes the line of southern secession in particularly haunting ways.  It is striking that the past inhabits the very divides the map describes, as does our own cartographic consciousness of the rift between states created by this cartographical line of longitude that is so familiar.  It is as if the unconscious of the mapmaker were rendered or emerged in the “Gas Tax” map, given the clarity with which the dataset reveals a divide that we, as viewers, immediately recognize and are as quickly conscious of it as being  long suppressed:  as much as offering a window or a mirror on the landscape they describe, recognition of that divide asks us to interpret its content, less by our position in relation to its space than analysts of its continuity with past landscapes, or of how map signs serve to configure our relation to the nation-state.

For all our usual attempts to historicize the map as a document, the distributions of space that reveal the after-image become oddly unmoored from their specific time as the patterns we detect seem so uncannily present:  as if unhinged the historical context they were created, we innately recognize the “afterimage” preserved in them, as the scars that seem to be left by other traumatic spatial divides, triggering our own sense of cartographic consciousness of the space.  The strong presence of such “after-images” resonate with the presence of the map and map-interpretation in our lives, and recapitulate a tradition where maps consciously came to terms with national divide–and came to occupy a distinctly new set of discourse function oddly repeated in the latitudinal divide of local levels of taxation on gasoline.

One might hence begin from re-examining the nature of the narratives about national unity that Gannett’s map raises–a question I return in a later post reflecting further on the map’s historical context and legacy–and the ways that maps refigure national identity.  The specific political circumstances of Gannett’s map suggest that Gannett used the data available in tabulations of the popular vote at local levels to digest a far more sophisticated and refined picture of the national complexion of the country–or the political complexion of its regions–than the framework afforded by televised infographics that map the results of the elections back onto the country–as if that would reveal actual variations in voting habits, despite the narrow margins of so many elections that the same sort of data visualization so evidently obscures.  If the projection of election results in the 1880 election that he labored to create, Gannett used great care to how the map was read by its readers, without a need to respond to insistent demands to provide a record of immediate results.  Indeed, rather than suggest that his picture revealed a divide, the use of chromatic differentials in lithography allowed him to create something of a keen record of local variations, no doubt bearing out a keen interest to register the extent of an afterimage of secession in the map of the popular vote, quite unlike the short term visions of most electoral maps on the nightly news, which is only slightly tweaked in the work of political scientists.  Because of this attentiveness, it might be beneficial to expand a more detailed reading of how Gannett’s map was sensitive to the persistence of an afterimage of the clear divide between northern and southern states.

The geographically polarized divide emerged in the division of states described in a county-by-county representation of the degree to which the popular vote leaned Democratic or Republican.  Schulten powerfully presented Gannett’s earlystatistical map as the product of an early age of political partisanship, if not a founding moment of political divide, when the resistance to Reconstruction caused southern voters to attempt to reject the Republican platform, in ways that almost reflect a particularly salient latitudinal divide.  Indeed, after the 1876 election had been decided by a committee, and apparently against the popular vote, despite widespread accusations of voting  suppression, the statistical accuracy of the 1883 map published first in Scribner’s Statistical Atlas revealed how despite the deep carmine coloration of much of the South and indeed the national map, once translated to the electoral college, a difference of “just 7,000” votes gave James Garfield a decisive victory–yet the margin would hardly mend the national divide.

1880-popular-vote-mapLibrary of Congress

The political division that it mapped as “Political History” barely concealed how the charge to manufacture an image of national unity. During the divided era of Reconstruction, as secretary of the US Census, Gannett approached the subject of national unity when he mapped the popular vote in the aftermath of the bitterly contested 1880 election.

The distribution of the vote revealed a predictably haunting cultural divide–as well as a preoccupying way to remap the nation.  As a material artifact, Gannett’s map seems removed in time and political culture, but introduced–if in a reverse color scheme–the division between Blue States and Red States to communicate most readily the deeply contested election in a county-by-county rendering of the votes that political parties won.  Gannett’s map reveals with considerable immediacy and precision the extent to which the division of slave-holding states adjudicated within the Missouri Compromise left something more than a bitter taste, but a scar, that continued into the aftermath of Reconstruction, hardly ended in the Great Compromise that concluded the election of 1875.  The longitudinal parallel that came to define the dividing line of secession for southern states, as had the Missouri Compromise, effectively engraved a legal divide in a sovereign state that create two polities in uneasy balance with one another.  The boundary generated a deep after-image in secession that haunted how Gannett considered national unity–both in the war and its aftermath, as mending the uneasy echo of blue versus red states.  As much as seeking to “visualize the spatial dynamics of political power” in an icon of political polarization, it processed the legacy of southern secession by affirming the strong after-image, just twenty years secession had been advanced.

For all its similarities to computer-assisted data visualizations, Gannett’s map presents a divided landscape, if one whose color choice is reversed from the polarization by which we area accustomed to divide the country, that is less fractured than united.  We’ve grown so accustomed to denote “red” and “blue” states as to naturalize specific political preferences–and even profess shock at a “blue state diaspora” which created purple states, and offset red states’  growth, or describe folks fleeing blue states as if their blueness would be inherited in a naturalized political topography.  We naturalize the very coloration of an infographic as if it defined the nation’s political terrain.  Gannett’s map not only echoes not only the line of southern secession, but how the first maps of the United States became tools to represent the failure of secession and triumph of union as they “perform[ed] the act of statehood,” in Wood’s terms.

By placing the divides it creates in a deeper historical context of finer grain, Gannett’s map began a genealogy of the data visualization, historian Schulten argued “invented Red and Blue states” as a graphically efficient and persuasive way to process each party’s different levels of support.  The antagonistic opposition evident in the popular vote of the 1880 election also recorded a searing and long-lasting national divide whose memory, when scars of blood spilled on the battlefield not far receded, rooted in rejecting an overly intrusive federal presence south of the latitudinal divide–and  the centrality that the issue of Reconstruction occupied in Republican platforms in that year.  Schulten justly acknowledged how the map offered a new way to understand national divides, by using increased levels of cartographical literacy in the late nineteenth century to create an effective graphic register of national political divides during Reconstruction.

The historical map of the popular vote of the Presidential election of 1880 constituted a resonant moment in which afterimage of the continued divisions could be traced.  Even in the wake of the Civil War  the terms that Reconstruction throated to dictate to the southern states elicited a degree of collective opposition that revealed the deep divides that continued across the country, and had hardly begun to heal.  The divides revealed in Gannett’s political map remind us, in their graduated shades of blue and red, of the divides that were delineated, as if indelibly, and translated in how the “Popular Vote” was distributed.  The map offered a far more textured and finely grained visualization of voting preferences county-by-county across each state and territory than had ever existed in its rendering of the polity against a clearly defined projection of longitude and latitude, and in the provision of that data to a large body of readers cannot help but recall the recent popularity of synoptic summaries of recent presidential elections, also colored “red” and “blue” to indicate opposite ends of the spectrum.

The distribution sought to reveal considerably more local messiness than exists in the recent state-by-state colorations of info graphics, only recently contested in maps of more subtle parsings of voting tendencies by political scientists who interrogate electoral behavior more closely than the electoral counts.  Even a superficial reading of the lithograph of “Political History” suggests the continued difficulty of overcoming memories of Southern Secession in 1880–although, as the lower right inset map reveals, stark differences were really only revealed as the popular vote was translated to the electoral count.   Yet Gannett’s map is compelling since it maps a striking after-image in the distribution of the popular vote that seems to recognize to unique propositional qualities in maps as signifiers, as well as to their power as rendering of big data in  close detail.  Despite the very different modes of production from the engraved map to the crude datamap to the interactive map, the power of their codes and conventions becomes unmoored in the mind of the map-reader that illuminate the how strongly the map’s representational functions resonate with the representational claims of the state.

Even in our dataphilic age, after-images move across media echoing the divisions first inscribed in print–the earliest ancestor of the infographic exists in the statistical maps of the US Census to map a still imperfect union among the states that seceded from the Union and the Republic, in an early detailed distributions of the popular vote in the presidential election of 1880 as a way to embody the union–and embody, if perhaps unintentionally, the depth of the resistance to the Republican platform designated by deep pockets of rich carmine in those counties that lay below the thirty-seventh parallel.  The divide that the abstract line continued to embody both in the years immediately following the failure of southern Secession–which elections of both 1876 and 1880 sought to overcome or as much as possible repair–itself occasioned deep cartographical reflection, even if somewhat papered over in exquisitely detailed remappings of the oppositional divides in the popular vote that Gannett’s office undertook to reveal the continued unity of the nation.   Gannett presented his statistical map of the distribution of the popular and electoral vote in a time of political antagonism–it explained the clear victory of the Republican party in a polarized contest–as if to present an argument that unity still existed across the land.

1880-popular-vote-mapLibrary of Congress

Even in a time of such heightened political extremism, and when the memory of secession just less than twenty years earlier was still strong in one’s mind, the debate about Reconstruction that were so central in presidential platforms were less a cause for divisiveness, as was readily demonstrated by voting statistics.  Gannett was quite clear-headed when he introduced his collection of printed folio-sized maps and diagrams with the promise that they could digest graphically the “dry and difficult” study of statistics by how both form and color provide a manner of “clothing the dry bones of statistics in flesh and blood” by embodying and revealing material continuity among them, in which “features of great importance, hitherto but vaguely comprehended, are made to appear at a glance, . . . so vividly impressed as not to be easily forgotten” (1883).

Such aids, Gannett perceptively realized, not only “make public sentiment and shape public policy” in ways  “essential to intelligent and successful government” in any representational democracy, but most especially in the Reconstructionist postwar world.  Gannett’s elevation of the medium expanded his role as the Superintendent of the Census to a public portavoce of the state in a sequence of folio maps such as his image of the divided popular vote.  The resistance to the alleged interposition of further federal taxes at the pump reflects something of a similar resistance to the mapping of a symbolic unity, which seems at the core of what the visualization in the header to this post seeks to contest.  For the unexpected division of the symbolic unity of the United States gets at the heart of the sort of discussion that such infographics seek to begin, if not the local stories that they tell.
15.  The distribution of states between the Democratic and new Republican party defined a symbolic divide that was the inheritance of the Civil War and processed the aftermath of southern secession in the polarized political community it traced.  Gannett almost acted as an emblem-maker whose vision rooted the evolution of national consensus.  But the depth of the division that he traced between recognizable colors–red and blue–provoke winces of recognition.  Indeed, the distinctly familiar contours it charts among political environments makes the first infographic used to gloss a Presidential race so striking to readers today.

The organization of the nation by coloring states through the electoral votes that they assigned to each party in the Scribners’ Statistical Atlas (1883) offered informed readers a basis to gloss electoral division that seems a clear precursor of the recent divide between “Blue” and “Red” states, as Schulten has noted, by giving political legibility to the country in a manner few readers had been accustomed to resolve the Secession of the south in the presidential process.  Gannett’s statistical map aimed to overcome the depth of the lasting political division–here noting Democratic votes in shades of Red, and Republican votes in shades of Blue–that Gannett himself would have been most happy to compare to the divides that continue to haunt the country one hundred and thirty years hence, but whose very division he pointedly used the map of the popular vote (and of how the electoral process mediated the popular vote) as a cogent means to overcome.


Library of Congress

The elegant infographic–inset in Gannett’s larger map of the popular vote of 1880–distributed electoral results the particularly divisive presidential contest, in which Reconstruction loomed large as if to affirm the integrity and coherence of the United States by the links between regions of slightly varied hues.  We can bridge the depth of the historical divide in which the map was designed by the head of the US Census because the sharp divide among electors is so recognizable to the infographics that we consume each recent presidential election that redraw fault-lines over the same form as if they forecast impending fractures:  earlier maps become resonant by conjuring divides that echo with unfortunately continuing fractures in the political topography of our own national space that our pundits are so happy and ready to gloss repeatedly.  When the far cruder data capture shown in this post’s header also offers an unexpected persistence of afterimages of a past we readily detect in its own spatial analysis as stubborn prompts of the depth of duration of the “after-image” that Gannett’s map renders so indelibly in detail.

While we could view these maps as screens on which we project our own divides, the recognition the map provokes suggests something more than a mnemonic and more than a harbinger of political modernity and its graphical symbolization.  So clearly do some maps reveal the historicity of radical rupture in the past that their delineation of divide seems transmitted in unconscious ways.  The Exxon-Mobil gasoline tax map was distributed by the American Petroleum Institute to illustrate the unfair differences in gas prices across the United States, but might be more striking for tracing the continued presence of such an after-image of southern separatism.  If earlier maps of southern secession struggle with the wrenching divides of a national space, their continued after-images in later datasets remind us of the echoes that some divides however improbably continue to retain, as they appear as if scars or scratches on the map’s face are suddenly revealed  in an X-ray or by application of ultra-violet light, for all its banality of chocolate brown, chestnut and tan.

Gas TaxAmerican Petroleum Institute

16.  For such afterimages reveal the continued unexpected resilience of divides across the topography of political preferences that surprise us by their sudden appearance.  The shock they provide reflects how we continue to carve up space in our minds in ways received from cartographical records:  to risk a poetical analogy, mapped after-images offer etchings of crises that haunt the landscape, and rhyme with past divides.  One example might serve to make the point.  The forestalled break of Scotland from the United Kingdom–despite worry about its possibility–carried little sense of the story implied by an earlier after-image or prefigurement, save perhaps Hadrian’s wall or the marine gulf that the thirteenth-century monk Matthew of Paris mapped between England and “Scocia Ultra Marina“:  a return to what Scotland was wasn’t clear as an embodiment of the region–for all its untapped potential of oil production–presented little meaning for most ridings’ votes.

Scots Referencum

Scocia ultra marinaBritish Library

Of course, Matthew of Paris used map signs holding far less currency among contemporary map readers, and drew the map in ways that the “Yes” vote were less ready to exploit since they hardly seem forward looking.  But the division he drew that separated Scotland from England and Wales was curiously reiterated, this time as an imagined string of the Cheviot Hills whose westward progression reflected the separateness of Scotland, in Samuel Augustus Mitchell‘s 1860 “County Map of England and Wales, printed and published in Philadelphia on the eve of the U.S. Civil War:

Cheviot Hills Divide Scotland 1860“County Map Of England, And Wales” (Philadelphia, 1860); courtesy Rumsey Cartography Associates

The potential shock of the separation of Scotland from the UK would be something like the reverse of disrupting the memory of a recognized map through the for-now forestalled shock of redrawing the United Kingdom:  even folks at Colliers–already familiar with recent redrawing maps of Europe as a whole--have hesitated at dividing a national space of apparent unity that the outline of the United Kingdom has long defined.  In the recent 2014 referendum, the complicated and perhaps incomplete defeat of secession might perhaps have turned in part on the lack of convincing maps of separatism–everyone seems to have one–and the limited mobilization that the historical divide summoned–aside from Braveheart, perhaps–in conjuring the unity of mapped space apart from the apparent integrity of the UK.  (There seems to have been little possibility in providing or drawing on a map that embodied hopes for to separatism, perhaps, or an “after-image” of the mapping of a prospect of Scots autonomy that the referendum’s supporters would build upon.)

We clearly recognize something like a scar in the map when we watch how levels of gas taxation that break along a familiar latitudinal divide:  the scar of secession is quickly recognized in the map, in ways that lead us to map the basis of what motivated resistance to taxes on gasoline, and to ask what the divides that are so present in that map show, aside from the readiness of resistance to taxation.  Such cartographical after-images are revealed in ways that are specific to particular maps, and linked to both the sort of stories that the best dataset can show and the graphical coherence that the map provides. to the viewer which offer the possibility to grasp the meaning that the map embodies as a sort of argument about how we divide and understand space–and understand space by dividing it.   Tthe Southern Poverty Law Center presented a compelling a “geography of hate” by mapping actual hate groups.  The persistence of such advocacy groups grew from “pressing concerns” of collective hatred, from the Kentucky-based IKA–the “Imperial Klans of America”–to the Illinois-based BOK–or “Brotherhood of the Klan.”  But if the resulting image could be interpreted as evidence of the persistence such an “after-images,” the persuasiveness of dividing states in the “Hate Map” is, dismayingly, not so compelling as a distribution of a clear political topography that divides the United States:  the point is their persistence in our country, but the map blurs the resolution of specific pockets where these groups might be allowed to flourish in a broad range of states, or the relative size of these insidious organizations that perpetuate discontent:  the map is a chilling image, but also an unclear reflection, although it is clear how the cresting above forty (terrifying as it is) distinguishes Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida–as well as California, the loss leader in this metric.


The map appears to isolate regions where hatred finds its focus, but of course can’t be readily mapped onto each region’s residents.

17.  The concept of such cartographical “after-images” suggests more of a trace or imprint on than part of its representational functions.  The devil lies in the details, or in the extent that the details allow the viewer to enter into the local landscape a map presents:  after-images register differences that might be read as a lasting scar left on the land, but are best discerned within the content of subsequent maps.

The scars or “after-images” left by such a political rupture are often most easily decoded and read in immediately subsequent maps–especially maps that turn on such sensitive questions as those of political representation in the immediate wake of the Civil War.  The lack of volition specific to after-images make them unlikely metaphors for the highly structured field of the map’s space, but as disembodied forms they compliment the inherited structures of space that are rarely registered in the actual landscape, but as if imprinted on the landscape in ways somehow independent of them, such “afterimages” are registered with surprising clarity in the distribution of the crudest data overlays to the far finer grain of Gannet’s lithograph.  If maps offer an alternative way of “seeing” the transmission of divisions imprinted on their surface, they reveal the after-effects of secession by spinning compelling narratives about the division of north and south. Even the crudest data maps might be aptly described as compelling “afterimages” of the lines secession drew across the land’s expanse, shaping local inhabitants’ view of the nation and national government as much as reflecting them.  Gannett’s registration of such dense redouts of anti-Republican animosity transcends mere conviction, but was rooted in reluctance to adopt what is seen as external imposition of civil rights’  policies, and reflects the retention of meaning that existed in the past demarcation of a Confederacy-Union divide.  But the recognition of the longitudinal divide among states which refuse the taxation of gasoline constitutes an odd after-image of the secession of southern states, as if an anachronistic echo of self-declared construction of a divide in the political landscape of the twenty-first century.

The concept of the “after-images” appeals more than that of a trace and an imprint on the map’s surface.  For rather than being an accomplishment or renewal than it registers the shock that occurred in the status quo, in ways that might the recognized as something of a scar that was left upon the land, but is able to be discerned only through a later map.  The afterimage reveals the result of the continuation of a cascade of events in how spatial divides are redrawn whose echoes–to synthetically shift or mix metaphors–continue to reverberate in how we read the landscape that it maps.  Instead of being defined in the map, the afterimage emerges from the resonance between maps, and from comparison–and is not able to be reduced convention or line on a map or be mapped, and helps maps empty the relatively abstracted distribution in the divide of local levels of gas-taxation onto an inheritance of political divides.

Gas Taxgas key

1880-popular-vote-mapLibrary of Congress

The persistence of divide does not reflect only the outline that the image-maker or map-maker created–“fictor cum dicit fingo figuram imponit”– but also track the depth of a difference maps stubbornly reveal.  Much as the ghostly remnants of sudden ocular over-stimulation glide, disembodied from spatial coordinates or position in our vision, they offer unlikely metaphors for the collectives registered on a land-map.  But as an image of speech they suggest the unconscious ways that narratives of spatial difference are imposed on different ways of inhabiting space–and are imposed by the legal boundaries of difference that were created in the United States from the boundaries in which slave-holding remained permitted from the early nineteenth century, and were indeed defended as a right of the states toward the Confederate south that seceded from the union.

The divide in Gannett’s map of returns in the presidential election of 1880 revealed that Garfield barely won any of the counties in Southern states.  In transcribing the results of an election widely perceived as a referendum on Reconstruction, Gannett vaunted the precise tabulation of national votes and the recent coastal survey to create a color-coded record of the distribution of the popular vote by tones of red and blue for the first time, Susan Schulten wrote, to overcome the continued polarization of the post-war electorate in the United States.  Although the division of the electorate did not precisely correlate on a county-by-county level, the regions which resisted the Republican candidate (here represented in blue) constituted a shift to increasing crimson in comparison with a pinker–and far more light blue–northern states.

Around Mason Dixon LineLibrary of Congress

The division the statistical map reveals across the United States more broadly reflects the complex spectrum of progressive in some southern cities, but reveals dense pockets of

carmine, thanks to Gannett’s innovative graphical choice of gradations of blue and crimson to differentiate electoral preferences in sharp detail.

Latitude in Gannet's MapLibrary of Congress

How such afterimages emerge may be less specific to their subject, most importantly, but based on how they allow us to navigate the political landscapes that they describe.  The most highly structured maps prompt and invite compelling stories about their distributions–whose after-images seem to haunt the political landscape:  as much as define the distribution of votes, in other words, Gannett’s “infographic” offers a solution to visualize the fracturing of national politics.  The compelling nature of such after-images that are revealed in a sequence of maps is less directly signified by attributes of what is mapped, than characteristics whose significance the viewer recognize as they read, as something like traces or indelible imprints separate from their proper subject.  Such persistent afterimages offer narratives that accumulate upon the objectivity of a map.

18.  The divide between regions red and blue was not born on televised news reports of election-night, as Athena out of Zeus’ head, but as NBC’s graphics department decided to designate a national divide the compelling  map of the popular and electoral vote for president  offered a fractured landscape of electoral preferences newly divided.  Whether a social or cultural divide, or a difference in lifestyle, the division offered a way to understand something like changed political landscape of the country with George W. Bush’s victory, although the rhetoric of redrawing the political map seems tired.  The history of sharp divides between “Red” states and “Blue” states responds not only to a search for meaning in our choreographic collective, but to the frustration of birding these divides within a system of representative government, in ways that would overcome the chromatically essentiallized attributes of any region or location as distinct.

They tellingly employ the patriotic hues from the primary colors–red and blue–not only to visualize  either end of the spectrum, but to suggest the continued coherence of the data visualization in a map.  There is less intensity strong enough to generate such perceptual after-images in a map, or presume after-images might be expected to exist, given the shifting political landscape of polarization, which suggest something like a search for narratives of differences that is mediated through political institutions process a political space.  For the divides that they have imagined have also emerged as far more complex, as elections have created a remapping of finer grain than the results of the electoral college would show.  Rather than mapping “blueness” and “redness” to reveal lands divided between Star Bellied Sneetches and Plain Bellied Sneetches, GIS tools, complicating the oppositions of the data visualization.  Ways of opening up these divides over time, suggested by the comparison between the after-images Gannett’s map evinced and the image that was echoed, as if it captured either a figural expression and emotional posture of the country.

The attempt at creating an atlas of data visualizations, comparing different paper maps, would extend to a chronological ordering of the shifting spaces of political affiliations that the quadrennial recurrence of presidential elections would allow.  The terrestrial geographic map of the United States white carries intense contiguous azures in select spots and a roughly rosy interior, David Sparks found, adopting a uniformity of colors to earlier political parties and mapping how political affiliations shifted over one hundred plus years since the Civil War–or roughly from the time of Gannett’s map.  Sparks’ chronologically collapsed isarithmic map of continuous coloration suggests some continuities among voters from 1876 to 2008, if it contains multiple narratives in voting habits by predictable fuzziness in electoral allegiances for most of the country.  But the condensation Sparks devised in a video and collective synthesis reveals a proclivity among states below the thirty-seventh parallel, rendered even fuzzier in the synoptic one-minute animated graphic crafted from multiple frames from 1920 to 2008, whose animated choropleth reveals clear preserves of one-party voting, almost as if regions were inhabited by the ghosts of earlier political preferences. And the replication of the latitudinal divide immediately strikes the viewer, despite its almost air-brushed quality:

isarithmic election map 2008Many divides in maps are frustratingly opaque as they are read over time, and after-images difficult to discern, but political scientists indulge in this sort of mapping, as if in an attempt to invest historical dimensions to the individual data visualizations.  Sparks’ synthesis also interestingly compares, when extended to 2012, to the county-by-county parsing of the Romney-Obama presidential election, in which blue democratic counties spun out in the Southern cities and in the Southwest in ways that broke an earlier landscape of opposition, but which a simple geographic distribution can no longer explain, given the population density of many of the regions of the map in the Northeast and Pacific coast colored blue, a distortion mirrored the unique mosaic of votes in the Midwest and Florida–

County-by-county 2012

-.although a cartogrammic warping of the same election by population reflects the same deeply dyed blue divide of the Northeast, area around Lake Michigan, and West, and an ominous shrinkage of the population of red lands

County-by-county cartogram 2012Mark E. J. Neuman, University of Michigan

The variability of party preferences suggests the irregularity of the blanketing of red states across the interior around 2000–elections which first provoked an actually anomalous red state vs. blue state geography of polarization:  voting patterns from 1920 to 2008 chart electoral preference moves like swells across the country in improbable waves that appear driven by a combination of fashion and circumstance, as much as different areas of work or economic relationships of a fixed geography:

But if temporal synthesis muddies topographic variations in the political landscape, mapping regional electoral preference in presidential contests from 1876 to 2008 effectively define loose contours around the South–and the red blur around Salt Lake City–from the blue-leaning industrialized cities in the northeast, Great Lakes, and west.  The after-image of Reconstruction extends to the longstanding disenfranchisement of African-American voters, still evident in the recent redistricting of Alabama voters.  Despite some shifts, the landscape is recognizable:   “after-images” are not shared memories or distinct allegiances transmitted across generations, but rather reveal evidence the continued impact of removed experiences, per their resonance until they might be said to eventually fade from the picture in which they first created such strong stimuli.

The latitudinal divide that has inscribed itself on the landscape reveals itself best in maps of fine grain–but that in due course diminishes to vanishes, or mutates into new divides.  After all, the divide is not linked to the terrain; it is perhaps even best revealed in the truly compelling (and dynamic) Tableau visualization of the 2012 election’s translation to the elector college that Adam McCann created, which creates something like a distinct sea of Red below the very same conceptual divide:

2012 Tableaux

The Tableau map perhaps best reflects the national division emerging among states adopting laws not mandating that employees join unions–seen widely as anti-worker laws with the most pernicious result of endangering pensions and benefits, increasingly adopted (or introduced) as explicitly pro-business measures.

%22Right%22 to Work Map

%22right%22 to work laws in antion

Data-visualizations often intentionally offer distorted oversimplifications to readers, and fabricating divides in space as if they were permanent in nature.

Afterward:  Re-Examining the Divided Vote in Henry Gannett’s Map as an Image of the Nation

The electoral drama of 2000, when the emergence of a swath of red states reified the Republican victory in especially iconic terms, created a visual rhetoric of division that is particularly insidious.   In contest, the mapping of the popular vote after the Civil War responded to a specific localized crisis in  the country’s chorographic representation.  By giving the spatial distribution of the popular vote for the 1880 election in readable form, Gannett explained the problematic electoral divide–a divide far more salient and problematic than most other periods of the blurred lines of the red-white-and-blue airbrushing of the lower forty-eight that Professor Sparks devised, and that reveal a crisis in political representation–as well as chart the depth of the after-image of Secession in the era of Reconstruction.  Their close proximity to the aftermath of the war led them to create a clear mirror of the political  debates of Reconstruction and in the years before the 1880 election that Republican candidate James Garfield won, but by barely claiming a razor-thin majority of the popular vote, that the statistical battery of the distribution he had at hand caused him to produce a compelling explanation of the vagaries of an electoral system much of the nation’s voters didn’t fully grasp or comprehend–especially since the results of previous 1876 election had been inverted not by the electoral institution but by the Senate’s compromise.

Gannett acted as something of a medium of reflecting deeply-held opinions in inscribing the electoral differences across the United States.  Acting like the cartographical conscious of the divided nation, he mapped how the translation of popular to electoral votes restored a coherent if deeply fragmented sense of community–although one that also provided a basis for future after-images of a divide.  For Gannett set out to create such a statistical map that explained the Republican victory in ways that could be readily digested by a larger audience, to be sure familiar with territorial maps as illustrations of the continuity of the new country, but less sure of how to reconcile that very continuity with the obstinate divisions between political parties who divided around issues of Reconstruction and slavery that the war had provoked.

Political polarization has not only characterized the American political landscape for some time.  The division that began in quite different guises, however, in the aftermath of the Civil War, that pale before the recent divide between Republican and Democrats.  The divisions in the popular vote of 1880 were so stark to lead Gannet to come to terms with their divisions.  He preserved in cartographical terms a record of the divided nation that would readily explain the Republican victory in ways that could be readily consumed, that provided a compelling record of the after-image of the divided polity for an audience whose familiarity with maps of political unity was only relatively recently developed.

The intensity of given counties’ deepest opposition to the Republican platform that advocated Reconstruction as even more intense than Republican support was in much of the north:  although the map is, most prominently, a record of the rejection of secession, and election of a Republican president–Garfield–so used are we to seeing such topographies of opposition in the most recent electoral maps, we almost reflexively detect a steep opposition in counties across Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia as well as Virginia:  the divide immediately catches the viewer’s eye, and data “speaks clearly” to the viewer, given the sophisticated ways that Gannet, as the Superintendent of the Census, used tools of line engraving to calibrate the intensity of voting preference–Republican or Democratic–to map a topography of preference in his map six deepening hues of red, ranging from light pink to deep carmine, or from baby blue to deep azure, saturating counties different colors to reveal the intensity of their inclinations in a stunningly clear topography of majoritarian divides whose modernity immediately strikes us as considerably refined parsing of the popular vote by color coding the proportional distribution of the vote per county for his readers.

3_scribners_1883_625_0Library of Congress

KEY Rep:DemLibrary of Congress

4_scribners-1883-electoral-vote_625Library of Congress


The United States was effectively redrawn, in the redolently patriotic topography of red, white, and blue that both respected local variations even as it recognized a landscape of continuing political differences.  In ways that use of the artifice by which electoral maps can resolve the outcome of contested Presidential contests, the map proves something of an emblem that can be glossed so as to unite the country even after he most bitter divides.  The post-civil war divide during Reconstruction occasioned what Schulten calls “the ancient map that invented Red and Blue states,” as an economic way to describe the different levels of support of each party, and the limited rootedness of that support across geographic divides.

It also reveals the increasing authority of data sciences and statistical mapping as a means of understanding and distilling a complex moment of political change–we can excuse her for dating ‘ancient’ from the burst of statistical maps of early big data in the late nineteenth century, when statistical geography tried to reconcile the big data with the need for images of national unity, although if they offer an early precursor of the hunger for data,  they remain distinct from the less refined skills of visual discrimination that were used in early twenty-first century computer-assisted graphics, and the recent proliferation of their explanatory force.  While the Gannett map reflects the authority of the engraved map as a form of understanding the nation in the mid-nineteenth century, based on new techniques of lithography, to clarify pressing questions of continued national coherence, the fad for the data-visualization–an artifact with deep roots in the nightly news–provoked a search for the selective criteria that best summarized national divides which effectively removed the nation from its past.

Questions of wrestling with American identity from a deeply historical perspective had arisen during Reconstruction because the Republican party had allied its anti-slavery platform as  preserving the integrity of the nation and as the centenary provoked historical perspectives on national identity; the measurement and digestion of recent historical events in graphical guise, Schulten reveals, provides an early form of the info graphic, adopting recent techniques of shading in color lithography to process the popular vote of 1880 in which nine million Americans had voted, and the victor, Republican James Garfield, drew only 7,000 more votes nationwide than his Democratic opponent.  For Schulten, the innovative statistical map of such fine resolution newly “enabl[ed] Americans to visualize the spatial dynamics of political power”–or an election’s results–as it “more systematically measured” election returns, “showing a nation organized not according to railroads and towns, or mountains and rivers”–mapping the vote across counties at a fine grain that invited viewers to navigate and note salient divides in the political landscape that was still haunted by Secession.

The map provided a basis to materially render a political divide in ways that materialize the electorate’s distribution.  Gannett’s map is also striking for how it registers something of an “after-image” of succession, as much as it preserved an image of national unity.  The map offered an image of representational democracy–in which an election could be determined by but 7,000 votes, or shifts in several counties in New York State–in other words presents a new problem of unity, and of Republican dominance after the Civil War.  The map responded to significant uncertainty about the continued integrity of a nation by a Republic president after the election–the cartoonist Thomas Nast seems to have foreseen their electoral victory in a comic news map, representing a sturdy behemoth elephant that would carry the nation, but which obscured its eyesight, piercing Maine and California to balance the midwest on its broad back:  “The Republican Animal Will Carry It,” Nast foretold in a brief legend–the prolific political cartoonist who had long despaired at Republican compromise with the south was displeased by Garfield, but resisted commentary and conceded that the elephant was laden with the map it would carry, and drew few more cartoons about the election.


Gannett let statistics speak eloquently in graphic form to explain how the narrow election translated into electoral victory.  The spatial dynamics his map reveals itself presents a detailed after-images of former slave-holding Southern states–in the continued intensity of popular opposition to the Republican candidate.  Although the narrowness of the margin of victory Garfield won in the popular vote–still the smallest in American history–translated into a handy electoral college victory, the map revealed the continued dominance of opponents of the Republican party in the south, here gauged by the intensity of their opposition:   the two-color chart reveals not only the intensity of deep carmine distrust of Lincoln’s Republicans, but calibrate the intensity of opposition county by county, as if to document the efficiency of the suppression of the votes or voice of many former slaves and free African Americans, now enfranchised by the Fifteenth Amendment–save those Republican redoubts where they were possibly more effectively mobilized by those blacks who had returned to the South during Reconstruction.

The divisions that then defined the electoral landscape still held clear marks of Southern secession, traces apparent in the fields of crimson bridge the symbolic and empirical.  In an age of digital mapping and data visualizations, readers are often invited to tease out as lines fracturing the political landscape.  The local variations in the voting patterns, Gannett sought to show, clearly translated into blocks of red in the electoral map he prominently inset in the large national map at its foot, revealing how the nation seemed broken into two competing constituencies.  The map has special resonance in light of the narrowly resolved election of 1876.  Indeed, the map came tacitly seems to come to terms with the divided electorate in that presidential contest, between Democratic Senator Samuel J. Tilden and Republican Rutherford Hayes, where the vast majority of Southern states had voted against Hayes and for Tilden, as in 1880, but rather than leaving the vote to Congress, Gannet’s tabulation of the vote with precision elegantly resolved a narrow popular vote, but served to explain the spatial distribution resulted in a clear winner.

The map offers an early precursor of the recent divide between “Blue” and “Red” states, Schulten noted, but serves to illustrate not only a divide but the resolution of a divided electorate through the political process.  The map appears to resolve a newly opened chasm within the electorate, and to hope to resolve that gap in ways that readers could process as they ordered out the county-by-county tendency of the bitterly contested popular vote that determined a race that seemed as if it could go either way as the popular vote was tabulated–and which staged a drama that demanded resolution in a more conclusive cartographical form.

1880-popular-vote-mapLibrary of Congress

The clear variations in a something of spectrum of light blues and light pinks that was so specific to Gannett’s map was interestingly not retained in the inset map of electoral votes–at first sight Minnesota and Vermont were deepest blue, and Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina deep red, but this only suggests the distribution of electoral votes by shading states in graduated tones to show the popular vote in the synoptic fashion that we have become most familiar, if only because electoral votes are counted by the state as a whole.

4_scribners-1883-electoral-vote_625Library of Congress

The divisions of the country by political preference were, in the end, less accentuated than its unity.  Republicans had cast themselves as the party of saving the union in 1876, and the preservation of the Union remained on the front burner of American political culture during the divisive presidential election of 1880, which was in ways a contentious repeat of the resolution of a country divided by Reconstruction.  As US Census Superintendent, Gannett devised the project of compiling a highly detailed county-by-county account of the distribution of the national popular vote of 1880 whose publication was designed to overcome division by registering the depth of votes for the Republican candidate, Garfield, that made his victory–if actually as narrow as that of his predecessor, Rutherford B. Hayes, itself resolved only by the electoral college–a form of affirming the electoral system as well as a persuasive statistical synthesis, presenting the results of the electoral map in ways that viewers could readily process.

It has to provoke pause that a similar latitudinal divide across the United States continues to haunt the mapping of distinct local levels of taxation on as quotidian a commodity as gasoline by similar forms of shading.  For the gas-tax latitudinal divide not only maps questions of taxation; the status of taxing gas taxes maps a region marked by federal suspicion:  the divide in states’ boundaries registers deep continuities in attitudes toward the political acceptability of introducing a further local taxes that would hamper access to what is taken as a marketplace right.  And the picture of a deep divide that the presidential election of 1880 created as sharply defined precedent as any to trace through the stark shift in public priorities and notions of good government revealed in the Exxon-Mobil gasoline tax map not only “explains a lot” about the United States, as American Petroleum Institute blogger Ken Cohen offered, but traces a continued after-image of secession.  Discussing the haunting of the info-graphic with a removed divide that seems uncannily present in the map itself, will be the subject of a set of future posts in this blog.  For the demographic divides that the map instated left the union haunted by stark divides that at times seem burned into our collective consciousness.  Maps bear traces of the collective experiences with which entire nations wrestle in the modern era, where big data offers the basis to take the temperature of national unity.

Gas Tax

gas key

The recent election in Scotland, to be sure, suggests less of a trace of the past in its distribution of the popular vote or a continued mark of an electoral divide in the UK’s political culture.  With thirty-two of thirty-two reporting, the referendum of 2014 reveals less of a divide than an uneasiness of self-segregation, or uncertainty of autonomy, despite a clear vote around Glasgow.

Scots Referencum


Despite longstanding notions of Scottish separatism, in addition to the difficulties of rejecting the continued benefits of union, and the promise of its institutions, the absence of a separate political culture or perhaps of an existing after-image of separatism on which separatists could draw to mobilize their cause.

The fear that the tax-resisting California Drivers’ Alliance has stoked to mobilize against a hidden gas tax set to take effect in 2015, as part of the state’s efforts to expand the cap-and-trade program, is promised to be poised to put the squeeze on drivers who find themselves at the pump of up to 76 cents per gallon,  as if this were an entirely unwanted and unwarranted imposition on consumers–a point on which the Wall Street Journal readily agrees might prompt “an immediate jump in prices at the pump” onerous to the poor, to raise needed funds for carbon permit auctions.  The rise of this pro-industry if non-partisan community-based movement is based on a similar rhetoric of fear–evident in the forecasting of a loss of jobs that would result of some 18,000–justifies itself on the charge of failing to protect consumers in a similar rejection of representational democracy that has not heard the “pleas of California drivers who will be hurt by higher fuel prices” as if it would only create a “slush fund” for politicians disconnected from their constituents’ needs and are intent on curtailing public debate.  The basis of separatism has less of precedent in the state, however, where there is less recognition in a deeply “blue” state of a discourse of local autonomy and self-interestedness, and far less currency or symbolic capital of mapping the state as an entity apart.

Anyone who has made it this far and seeks more on the visualization of national unity in Gannett’s 1880 map can continue here; and is invited to look at Susan Schulten’s exemplary website, a companion to Mapping the Nation.  For those with an appetite to consider of the survival of the Gas-Tax Latitudinal divide in recent info-graphics betraying an after-image of the divide Gannett first commemorated, do look here.


Filed under data visualizations, infographics, mapping national divides, Red states v. Blue States, statistical maps

On the Repeated Mapping of the Unknown Flight Path of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

The proliferation of maps tracking the diverted flight path of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 repeatedly re-enact an exercise of mapping the unknown:  if the early proliferation of possible maps of its flight path matched the shock of its disappearance, the continued frenzy of the search for signs of the fate of the airplane and its 238 passengers, as if trying to help get our minds around the implausible nature of its disappearance on a rather routine commuter flight.  The rapid proliferation of hypothetical maps of plausible diversions hang on the turning points in the trajectory of the vanished plane from its last point of contact and observation all seem to be seeking to explain what happen with something like the surety we expect from maps:  in the absence of any information that is clear, we turn to the map as a way to ground what we know, and to try to find meaning in it.

But the multiplication of these maps almost seem to respond to a lack of real information, or conceal the absence of any clear leads as to what happened.  For each map includes an abundance of bathymetric contour lines, shorelines of islands, point of take off and the place of the satellite had last contact with the flight are all included in these maps, which obscure the sadly open-ended nature of the tragic narrative that exists around it.  While none presents the individual narratives of the passengers or pilots on the flight, by necessity, and may even represent the frustration of our remove from whatever happened on board the flight after it left the airport, the multiplication of news maps and digital reconstructions capture desperation at not knowing what sorts of events or potential diversions occurred.

At the same time, the underlying narratives of all accounts is often left unstated and go unexpressed:  that of how the flight path of an airplane managed not to be tracked.  The proliferation of news stories seem driven by the continued technological attempts to produce a comprehensive detailed account of what happened on the plan in its final moments–or of the location of potential wreckage –as we openly worry about the controlled nature of our international airspace, and the extent to which it can ever be fully mapped.  The inflection of this story, which is in a sense the parallel story that has been driving the story of the search for a narrative to describe the tragic events of the flight that left 239 passengers in the flight and its crew missing and presumably dead.   The assurances of international authorities on the International Investigation Team (ITT) that the search for fragments of the inexplicably vanished aircraft in the Indian Ocean will continue over a search area of nearly 50,000 square miles–aafer the perfunctory issuance of death certificates for all passengers by the Malaysian government–creates a puzzle about both our mapping abilities as tools of surveillance and effective control, and sustain a continued wish to compensate for such concerns by repeatedly illustrating the abilities to map, remap, and map again the area and the plane’s flight path, producing maps that might provide a narrative structure to events that seem dangerously incoherent.  For the map offers uniquely reassuring coherence on an event whose narratives have literally gone out of control.

Existing maps largely proceed from reconstructions of plausibly altered itineraries the airplane may have taken after it veered dramatically off-course in the course of an otherwise routine flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.  The underlying questions to which they appear to respond is how technology and ramped up security could prevent us from losing another plane, and how we can, as Tony Tyler, head of the International Air Transport Association, Tony Tyler, calls for the need “track aircraft wherever they happen to be, even if they go outside normal traffic coverage . . . in the most effective way.”  After the intentional closure of the transponder during the flight, the increased suspense of any air travel–and the anguish of the families with members on the Air Malaysia flight, increased attention has been directed to border control, as minimal information seems provided by attempts to map–or digitally reconstruct–the diverted flight.


Site of Last Contact


The map of flight-paths is often combined with maps of search missions and sites of possible wreckage in news maps and online media, as if to condense the slight information we encounter in a single map.  Chances of discovering or locating whatever is left of the lost plane–the ostensible goal of the search mission–seem remote, like a needle in a haystack, despite the lack of an appropriately marine metaphor.  The insistent and repeated mapping of the Boeing 777’s flight path and its contact with ground control is not only an artifact of the news cycle; it is an incomplete narrative we keep on trying to resolve or find resolution for:  the story of the interrupted flight path has left audiences world-wide wondering whether the storyline will ever be resolved, how the intervention in flight path was made that caused it to shift its planned itinerary, and why our apparently refined abilities of mapping can’t complete the narrative we all want to bring completion to. There is a commanding logic in matching the search area to the possible diversion of the plane’s in-flight trajectory, but everything is complicated by trying to balance a narrative of the flight’s tragically diverted course with the mute azure surface, without landmarks or points of orientation, of oceanic expanse over which jets travel on search missions and boats patrol.

In ways that have gripped viewers but also raise frustrating questions of how to best search international waters, as well as unfamiliar perspectives on mapped space, all eyes were for a time directed to the South Seas with an intensity that oddly echoed eighteenth-century speculators. For after we have watched a cycle of maps of the flight paths, we have found them substituted by the maps of the dangerous search conditions of the area, and the stories that they tell of the challenges of searching in the South Seas, at the same time as a fairly constant drumbeat of the maps of potentially sighted objects–things that can at least be mapped, unlike the plane itself–in the hope to locate something that might close the rather terrifying narrative of another potential diversion of a passenger jet’s flight path.  (That fragment of the story–an entrance into the cockpit or pilot’s cabin; the diversion of the path of a preprogrammed flight–is so powerful to summon nightmarish scenarios, and to search for any sign of resolution.)  That “other map” that has increasingly dominated news-shows and newspapers of potential fragments of the lost Boeing 777-200’s wreckage in the Southern Indian Ocean, Gulf of Thailand or even the Mediterranean has taken over, spinning the search mission into something like a cartographical myse en abyme, which lacks the possibility of clear resolution of perspective in mapping the shifting sites of searches that are super-imposed into maps of the flight path.

For fragments are repeatedly being reported in the ever-expanding and shifting search area for the tragic and still as of yet inexplicable disappearance of an airline with 239 passengers aboard:  in ways that have driven comparisons to black holes into which the jet mysteriously disappeared have created an almost near-impossibility of locating what one thought were the most trackable of flight paths, if only given the broad area of the radius of 2,500 miles which the fuel tank of Flight 370 might have allowed it to have gone after its last contact with radar.  The open seas that provided the only places to be less carefully tracked, as it left Malaysian for Thai airspace, seem a rare region removed from land-surveillance, as well, as we have since discovered, the sort of windswept area of fast-moving currents that have sufficiently flummoxed the densely concentrated and often multi-national surveillance systems that have mobilized around the area.




The mid-March findings that the airplane took a planned sharp turn westward, most likely programmed by someone inside the cockpit contributed grounds for fears of hijacking by someone on board, bolstered by the swerve of flight path toward the Strait of Malacca that the Royal Thai Air Force observed, traveling back out to the Indian Ocean, rather than its planned course to China, and the search has progressed along the lines that Flight 370 headed in another direction than was first believed, costing significant delays in time for the search for the missing plane, but not reducing the search area beyond 2.97 million square miles. But how does something like a plane fall out of contact with civilian radar or satellite?  Where, simply put, could it go, and how did it get there?  As the story has circulated in the major news outlets, a sort of popular response to the inability to map its course has surfaced or emerged.   The disappearance of the American-made airplane has recently provoked the existence of something like—you guessed it—a Bermuda Triangle, that often evoked conceit of the 1970s, or provoked (in less responsible news outlets) the existence of a “greater force” that just gobbled it up, in ways that explain (in comparable  ways) the sudden disappearance of aircraft from civilian radar monitors or satellite reception.  The notion of a “Bermuda Triangle”-like theory matches the odd absence of clear territoriality over the open seas in the region from the Gulf of Thailand or Strait of Malacca to the Indian Ocean, whose rapidly expanding search area that has involved the Chinese, American, Australian, Malaysian, British, New Zealand, and Thai governments, and evoked potential dangers from Uighur separatists, as much as Al Qaeda.  (Or might it be, as was recently suggested by a Canadian-based economist with ties to the petroleum industry, that the United States was involved in targeting MH370?)

The notion that no government is prepared or able to adequately chart the waters of the wild South Seas suggests an absence of governmental supervision that somehow links the plane to separatist groups–even if no one seems to dare to claim responsibility for diverting the flight. The difficulty in stopping the search starts not only from the tragic disappearance of a jet with some 260 people aboard.  The compulsion evident in the maps of air traffic controllers to the sighting of debris seems almost to derive from the fact that something managed to evade the system of worldwide surveillance somehow managed to escape being tracked, despite its size–or, more probably, the fear that we are not being surveilled and mapped as well as we had all hoped.   The latter not only opens the door to invite a further future opportunity for terrorist acts that we might all of course want to avoid, but lifts the veil on the surveillance industry itself. The images distributed by the Malaysian Prime Minister’s office, no doubt in response to how frustration made the government an early target for the inquiry, seemed to suggest an eery possibility of a middle-eastern connection, now doubt familiar to American ears–even though this expanded search area suggests little basis for such fears.  How, a concern runs across the media, did it ever disappear from radar coverage and surveillance?




But the very vagueness of potential trajectories Based on the amount of fuel within the jet’s tanks, the possible position of the flight when it was last heard from satellite suggested only that it lay along one of the red arcs of potential diversion of the aircraft’s flight path from Kuala Lumpur in the 7 1/2 hours after its 12:41 take-off, tracing some  2.97 million square miles in which to conduct the search for the areas to which it was originally delimited and confined:


Estimated Range of Possible Flight PathsNew York Times


Although the area the arcs encompass approach the expanse of the continental United States, the arc to the Caspian Sea or Kazakhstan seem to have received far more initial attention:  it would, one supposes, be confirmation of the tentacles of Al Qaeda rearing their head.  The far smaller areas in which the plane had first been searched, defined by white rectangles, suggested in this map, made a week after the airplane had disappeared, as well as the difficulty of tracking what had been assumed to be so readily confined to the Gulf of Thailand, but which now has expanded to cover much of the South Seas.  But the fact that even those flying the most up-to-date jets of American Navy surveillance like the  P-8A Poseidon have been peering out of glass airplane windows and not looking at their electronic screens to spot the potentially downed craft, relying on the human eye to scan the open waters, and only spotting such objects as orange rope, white balls, or blue-green plastic reminds us of how much ocean-borne garbage might create distracting signs to frustrate the search.  And the reports of a low-flying plane sighted March 8 near the Maldives might potentially refocus attention in other areas that might well be mapped.


INitial Search AreaNew York Times


It’s a bit shocking that in over three weeks, no sign of the airplane’s disappearance has been noted, despite numerous potential sightings that have in the end proved red herrings.  The oddness of plotting an opening of an escape from surveillance and tracking that are the basis of the concept of modern airspace find reflections in the repeated maps of loss of contact with controllers, exit from tracking systems, and potential paths of flight, all concealing the absence of surety in being able to verify what happened to the unfortunate passengers on Malaysia Jet 370 more than the results of an ongoing inquiry with little sign of any clues in the transcript of exchanges between the flight and controllers for the seven and a half hours after it took off, and little indication of the expected tussle that would be associated with a diversion of flight paths. The potential sites of wreckage that have been found are something like the catalogue of a junkyard–including some 122 pieces of unknown floating objects in the Indian Oceanseventy-eight foot debris off Australia’s coast; white balls, orange string or other junk–in ways that have led to an explosion of articles on potential sightings that seems without end, each announced as potentially “credible” as the last.  So many potentially distracting objects that bear no demand for further scrutiny seem to exist that the Australian military took it upon themselves to include a list of those objects worthy of follow-up, including “debris, distress beacon, fire, flares, life jackets, life raft/dinghy, marker dye, mirror signals, movements, oil slick, person in water, smoke, wreckage.”

The demand for news maps suggest the shifting areas of the search and the aporia of inquiries that reinforce how difficult it is to believe that anything like an airplane would be so difficult to map.  The Australian government assembled a colorful collage of spots already examined, indicating the intensity of their daily attempts, which have shifted as time progressed and new theories emerged:


Australian Colorful Collage of Searches


The Chinese government sought to provide ocular proof and exact coordinates of what looked like aircraft, 74 feet long and thirty feet wide, as if to reassert their claims to be monitoring the airspace by satellite, and staking claim to a region of particularly intensely disputed nautical boundaries–but so far finding little confirmation of the wreckage by boats:


Chinese Object in India Ocean


Are we just discovering how much garbage is in the ocean?  Or are we staking a claim to rights of sovereignty over maritime lanes, when maritime sovereignty still seems particularly difficult to define–raising questions of what sort of waters the craft may have been lost in, and whose right it is to retrieve whatever of the plane is left, but also pushing the search out to international waters, to avoid fraught questions of contested maritime sovereignty.  The oddly international complexion of the search parties that have been engaged so far has all too often muted the deeper salient question of the complex contestation of conflicting lines of maritime jurisdiction in the very region of the seas over which the plane flew.  (While few would want to suggest that the search has progressed in reaction to disagreements about jurisdiction, the difficulty of mapping jurisdiction in these waters has received far less press coverage than one might expect.)


Complex Delineation of Nautical Borders Legend-boundareis


In a field of disputes of maritime boundary lines, the search for the place is filtered through the actually contested sovereignty on multiple fronts, in ways that greatly complicate questions of responsibility for searching for the aircraft and its presumably dead passengers:


Complex Maritime Boundaries   Legend-boundareis


Indeed, the territorial complexion of many of the uninhabited islands of the South Seas resembles the random bright coloration of the multiple islands of medieval and early modern isolari, or books of islands, even if the colors are no meant to denote sovereign claims:




The larger picture is even, of course, both a bit more complex, and carries deep conflicts of how one can best understand maritime bounds, in ways that raise but a corner on the difficulties of resolving maritime boundary lines:


Complex Question of Boundaries


For most Americans, of course, oblivious to contrasting claims of sovereignty over water in a globalized world, and amused by the idea of contesting the sovereignty of maps, the questions might turn around the simpler incredulity at what has happened to our satellites or systems of radar.  The amount of ink spilled over the absence of indications of a major airline’s flightpath leaves viewers aghast at not being able to interpret the map that results. The pleasure that commentators on ‘The Ed Show’ or ‘Bill O’Reilly’ take in evoking and imitating authoritative maps that show potential arcs of air travel provide a scary shock-tactic of disorienting observers to an over-observed world, and suggests the discomfort not only at the potential for future skyjackings or dangers of flying aboard airplanes–but that we’re just not being watched as well as we all wanted to be, as if that was what we wanted. Or is it that the mapping of the results of post-9/11 surveillance have let us lapse, reassured, into a false sense that we need not worry about the dangers of the diversions of commercial flights, or that all is indeed under control?  Yet the hunt has now turned to the southern Indian Ocean, based on scattered new evidence of active flight diversion, after being centered in the Gulf of Thailand or South China Sea, with concern arising from the fact that the batteries on flight data and voice recorders–the main hope of finding the plane’s location–are due to die, and with them much potential evidence of what transpired in the cockpit, as pings emitted to facilitate their geolocation are due to die, after which the hopes to find evidence of what occurred would be drastically reduced.

The search for the information is being collected in the need to affirm the continued safety of airspace, not to mention confidence in the air travel industry.  Does it also serve to conceal the huge costs that the US government is ready to spend on the search, already having allocated 2.5 million for the participation of US ships and aircraft to this mission, presumably in the hopes to find clues to the disruption of monitored airspace.  (The flight of an search of the average high-tech surveillance navy jet of the sort equipped with the requisite surveillance cameras lasts two hours, deploying the most cutting edge example of surveillance of the “sea state”:  the theater for remapping the waters by planes such as the P-8A Poseidon suggests a rehearsal of the gamut of equipment that the Navy has assembled and huge costs to use must be balanced with the eagerness of being able to deploy our latest surveillance toys.)

average Search Plane(from The New York Times)


The frames of geographic reference somehow seem part of the dramatic narratives spun about the disappeared plane, whose possible paths not only inspire limited confidence in the accurate measurements or tracking capacities but oddly orient viewers to the South Seas from a strikingly new orientation on landmasses and marine space, in which the dramatically open areas frame the aerial search along a diverted flight path far from land, in an area that is moreover swept by winds that often exceed 100 miles per hour, and rough seas:


Reconstructions of Flight PathsNew York Times


The deployment of all this technology to map the region by weather charts or debris-sightings seem designed to bolster confidence that this area, if blocked by cloud cover and rain and tremendously powerful waves, and deep waters, is still being mapped with relative accuracy. Yet what is one to make of the mapping of potential sightings? What significance does their clustering in the Indian Ocean mean save the intensity of searchlights turned to that direction, and the new horizon of expectations that results–even if the idea that pings from the airline’s data system, ACARS, dating from the period of four to five hours after the last transponder signal, and transmitted to satellites, indicate its arrival in the Indian ocean.  But why map potential sightings if they are not confirmed, except to try to restore some confidence in a search that might be akin to searching for sightings of Elvis or Christ?  In the meantime, the proliferation of alternative theories continue, from the plane being attacked by extraterrestrials, captured by folks who’ve shrouded it in an “invisibility cloak” or the locally generated theory that the disappearance of the plane is part of a an ambitious life-insurance scam, and not a terrorist plot–floated by Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar.  Over the month since the airplane’s disappearance, the biggest winner has no doubt been CNN, whose 24-7 coverage has stoked continued interest in the story; CNN President Jeff Zucker boasted how the new ratings showing reveal “a record-setting month for CNN’s digital platforms, including record-high page views, video streams and mobile traffic,” as if he was addressing shareholders, as it continued to describe and map objects floating in the Indian Ocean, without any sense of whether they were related in any way to the flight–so long as they were located along “possible flight paths.”  Is the technology of mapping a legitimation here for the absence of any actual detection of the flight path?  


Objects SpottedNew York Times source Australian Maritime Safety Authority


It’s hard to follow the logic of those who are organizing the Australian search teams, even thought the New York Times does its best to keep us in touch with the latest, but the recent relocation of the search by some 700 miles to the northeast suggest the hunt is a grab-bag of guesswork, and reveals the intense feelings of desperation at the narrative spinning out of control.


Relocation of Air SearchNew York Times; source: Australian Maritime Safety Authority


But to generate more information about the “unfolding story” of what CNN has continued to call the “airline mystery,” given the fact that no resolution of this mystery is in sight, and no indications that the plane crashed have emerged, nothing does the trick like a map to link the event to a number of alternate narratives and abstractions.

And as it has emerged after almost three months that the unending search is the most costliest episode of recovery of a jet in human history, the devotion of such emergency apparatuses to locating a lost jet must be assessed:  at the cost of millions of dollars per day, and over three and a half million dollars just to deploy an underwater detector of potential pings over the past weekend, it might be time to return attention to what is the end of the search, save seeking closure on a traumatic disruption of any illusion of totalsurveillance of airways such as that which the United States government wants desperately to be able to sustain?

What else occasioned the repeated search for the ruins of the jet without any sense of limits of cost, and indeed the devotion of a recently developed technology of surveillance to the detection of potential signs of the lost plane and its passengers?  At the same time, the rescue mission seems a sort of dress-rehearsal for surveillance of submarines on the high seas, the narrative of locating fragments of wreckage of the plane’s fuselage or wings fits into a sense we need to find closure in a sense that something happened while we all thought we were being watched:  this notion that the incident of Malaysia Airlines 370 suddenly disrupted and shattered that sense of an achieved limited peace, even in a time of ongoing contained military engagement in several theaters of the world.  It is hard to get used to the fact that we are not, and cannot be, safe in air travel.  (But at least, perhaps, we have generated these detailed maps, which seem to be reassuring of a sense of monitoring an unfolding story, even if it is one that seems to have not gone very far after all.)

The sense that we’re somehow being less well-watched than we once were seems to have driven the constant stream of news stories—unconscionably, never edited or diminished on airline flights, but almost increased in an attempt to keep passengers more relaxed and on their toes, the jet has increased critical thinking to the extent that it has provoked calls for the re-introduction of “reliable psychics” (in a return to the Nancy Reagan White House).  Where the plane went is less the concern of these maps, it seems, than the fact that draw as many maps as we want, not much turns up on them. The courses of potential flight paths after the pilots lost contact with the airport in Malaysia from which they first took off on that tragic day seems less directed to the protection of our own frontiers—or even airlines—than the notion that we cannot map a map of that path, even with all our satellite coverage and technologies that we’ve devoted, in the wake of 9/11, to monitoring maps of all movements along flight paths across the inhabited world. One problem may be that 9/11 opened a narrative, or saw one forced on us, so haunting that we don’t know how to bring to an end, or cannot see an end of, so deeply unsettling is it all.

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Filed under CNN newsmaps, flight-tracking maps, infographics, mapping flight paths, radar maps, satellite surveillance, surveillance mapping

The Infographic Pontiff?

The refreshingly broad geographic purview of Pope Francis’ Urbi et orbi Christmas benediction, delivered to the faithful in St. Peter’s Square as a greeting to the world and the city, and to all Christians in the city and throughout the world, newly displayed the spectacular breadth of Pope’s call for peace across the world in a globalized age.  As the Easter Sunday Urbi et orbi papal benediction included imprecations and injunctions for peace in the Middle East, “and particularly between Israelis and Palestinians,” hoping for Godspeed in the process of negotiations, “peace in Iraq,” and “above all for dear Syria,” Mali, Nigeria, the Central African Republic, and across the Korean peninsula, Francis’ Christmas Homily illustrated the extent Francis’ direction of his annual pastoral message beyond both sola scriptura and beyond issues of church doctrine.

The homily’s wide geographic compass–containing a level of detail so tellingly absent from the generic breadth of recent predecessors in communicating the significance world peace–suggests a far broader notion of the church than was followed by his immediate predecessors, and indeed a needed geographic specificity in the relation of the pontiff to the faithful:   before some 70,000 faithful, the pontiff resumed a similar itinerary of sites of the persistent absence of worldly peace, touching similar landmarks in a tour of global conflicts from South Sudan to Syria, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Iraq. Francis’ comprehensive roundup of global hotspots took its brief in refreshingly literal terms as addressing “omnium ecclesiorum Urbis et Orbis,” by effectively mapping commanding Hotspots of civil unrest and travail across our inhabited world, and of course hoping for future tranquility.

This indication of continued horrors we might too easily neglect is a far cry from how the global maps commissioned by Gregory XIII in the 1580s.  If the monumental cycle of maps in the Galleria delle carte geografiche expanded the image and presence of Italy in the Mediterranean, as well as its significance to the worldly church, and the above Loggia offered a canvas for tracing missionary routes to different continents, Francis’ mapping of suffering dramatically departed from the magisterial function of the church in dispensing dispensing worldly teachings, and suggests a way to broaden the vocal role of church in a globalized long considered one of the earliest globes to depict the New World in detail, if the third to survive.  T.  Perhaps this came from his appreciation of the actual difficulty of prayers for worldly peace.  Francis’ homily gave new breadth to his sense of moments “both bright and dark” in worldly politics.  Whatever the reason, breadth doubt informed the sense of peace and what peace would entail–his procession from St Peter’s basilica gave prominent position to pairs of children from Italy, the Philippines, Lebanon, his native Argentina and Congo, as if in an embodied objective correlative of worldly suffering among Christian believers, and an infographic that could be held before the eyes of the faithful, and remind us of the great stakes of any future map for worldly peace at the start of the third millennium.

As the first non-European pontiff, no doubt the former Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio was acutely conscious of his charge for ensuring global comprehensiveness within the Church, as well as of expanding the doctrinal focus of his immediate predecessors.  Francis openly joked on assuming St. Peter’s throne that his fellow cardinals of seeking a new bishop of Rome that they went “almost to the end of the world.”  And long before being anointed by Twitterfeeds with the hashtag #BestPopeEver, he suggested a broad perspective on the alleviation of and attention to worldly suffering and the active role of the church in its alleviation, a consciousness no doubt present in his adoption–the first time for a Roman pontiff–of the name of the Franciscan founder, St. Francis of Assisi.  His appreciation of thee relative nature of peace may have surely derived from his personal experience and exposure to dictatorship as a Jesuit during Argentina’s Dirty War (guerra suicamay have made many and multiple compromises to preserve peace; Bergoglio was quite familiar with Argentinian death squads, and seems to have minimized the 30,000 deaths of that place and period, in ways that  surely invested a different view of “peace” as an arduous uphill climb.  (His relative silence in a period of terror terrifyingly paralleled the minimization of violence of the dictatorship of Jorge Rafael Videla, and he has revealed something like a dedication to atonement ever since he offered Videla comfort and communion–if not his concealment of political prisoners–charges perhaps due to pragmatism in the moment, but which the pontiff has not clarified satisfactorily.)




But to forgive is Christian, and to err human, and since he worked within the Argentine political structure, Francis has attained the unique perspective to turn a significantly more tolerant eye on the Christian faithful and to devote considerably more attention to the scale of worldly suffering.

And when Francis evoked a cast of characters in need of peace and hope, from child soldiers to migrants,  and providing something like a literal tour of moments of worldly peace, his sermon had a clearly cartographical quality:  he offered a sort of virtual travel to or evocation of places of unrest that merited personal papal attention (or intervention) and indeed the spiritual attention from the world’s religious.   He took more seriously the global nature of the address that hoped for “peace in the world” from human trafficking to natural disasters in his “urbi et orbibenediction that embraced the literal scope of the sermon hoping to foster global unity and peace–even if his history of compromise and possible collusion suggest a more problematic history of personal involvement in reigns of terror.   Following the time-honored presumption of ecclesiastic universality that befits such an annual homily, Francis openly addressed once more the “ongoing conflict in Syria,” hoping that followers of all religions were working for peace there, and praying for a resolution to civil strife, hoping that the Lord would act to “foster social harmony” in Southern Sudan, as well as the Central African Republic, hoping for dialogue to grow in Nigeria and the Holy land, and that tragedies never again befall migrants as they did this year at Lampedusa, an island off the coast of northern Africa, ever again.

The breadth of his call to conscience was striking, and has been widely celebrated.  “Too many lives have been shattered in recent times by the conflict in Syria, fueling hatred and vengeance,” hoping to spare future suffering for the Syrian people, and hoping that the Prince of Peace might also help to heal the constant attacks on innocent and defenseless in Nigeria, the frequency of violence in “beloved Iraq,” so often struck by senseless violence, and that hope and consolation reach the many displaced from the Horn of Africa to the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and those displaced by natural disasters in the Philippines.  In providing a personalized message of support and succor, Francis also offered something of an infographic of global Hotspots of need and humanitarian disaster far more explicitly than his predecessors would have ever articulated, focussed as they were on issues of doctrine as much as of worldly conflicts or wars.  If we don’t know what newspapers Francis reads, his words echoed the March public comments Valerie Amos who, as head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), described the many “neglected” areas she met as “In the last year alone, I visited more than 40 countries from Syria to Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Niger, Afghanistan and Myanmar, and saw and heard for myself the terrible conditions that families face and their harrowing stories–loss of loved ones and homes.”  These “neglected regions,” surrogates for the neglected, offer a new geographic language for understanding regions of humanitarian assistance and need whose rhetoric seems modeled after that of maps to show the humanitarian Hotspots that are familiar from maps of global warming, and which provide new visual models to contemplate the increasing depth of inter-relationhips within the world.




Or our own globalized sense of the multiplication of hazard Hotspots so disparate to be hard to process or even get one’s mind around–also a tragic challenge in the face of global warming.




Pope Francis seems to realize and relish the challenges both of ecclesiastic leadership and of providing comfort and consolation in an age of globalism.  In the age of elegant but impersonal infographics, the expansive geographical breadth of spiritual compassion across the world seems a response to globalization that tabulated the costs of what we too often lose from the 24-hour news cycle:  for if the pontiff’s world tour was a worthy exercise of extending a globally frayed compassion, it was also a cursory review of selective dim points of civil strife across the inhabited globe that was (as befits the medium, perhaps) short on particular details or local context, and as an impassioned address fell a bit short, as well as a depressingly long laundry list.  But that said, the infographic that Francis provided to believers was a welcome inclusion of specifics to hold before their mind, in contrast to His austere predecessors, the world-travelling ecclesiological conservative John Paul II and the even more austere Benedict XVI, for all the Enlightened pretensions that the undoubtedly intentional echo of Benedict XIV suggests.  Indeed, Francis offered a telling shift from the dominant concern of his predecessors with questions of catechism, arising from their magisterial notion of the pontiff as head of the church.

The papal Christmas benediction was a sort of infographic for a world weary of war, where He could only hope to offer succor or faith for the many victimized and displaced world-wide in hot-spots of civil unrest, an attempt at offering a sense of hope which seems so thinly stretched.  Can we process the infographic that he gives us, and use it to keep an eye on needs for worldly assistance and sympathy?


Pope Francis Christmas 2013


And the new vision he has presented in the elevation of Cardinals in the very first month of 2014 provided a refreshing image of the church whose collective memory and spiritual body has been for perhaps far too long identified with Italian bishops, and whose corpus mysticum has been difficult to separate from the Italian peninsula–or Italian cities such as Venice and Rome–even as it has gained a truly global status over the twentieth century, removed from a colonial apparatus if also redolent of colonial ties.  Pope Francis’ recent timely elevation to the cardinalate from regions in Latin America, Asia, and Africa make a case for the church’s global face–and distance the worldly body of the church from a clerical career path or ladder often moving from Venice and Turin.

Indeed, the infographic provides a compelling new vision for the body of the Church, and its ties to believers, as well as its charismatic body whose legitimacy derives from divine intervention in human history but is sustained by continued faith.  For in selecting a cardinals’ college that includes not only Managua, Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Ares, but Seoul, Les Cayes in Haiti, in addition to the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and the Philippines, Francis clearly intends that the church begin to present an image of itself to its believers and to the world that is globalized, rather than rooted in one peninsula.




This is refreshing, and particularly timely–in light of the planned February 22 consistory in Rome. If we have seen narrow-minded screeds about how “the US is getting skunked” in this reconfiguration of the church’s public profile, this is also an affirmation that the mystical body of the church derives from its continued ongoing relevance to its faithful and to those in need.

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Filed under #BestPopeEver, Christmas papal homily, infographics, Pope Francis, St. Peter's Basilica, Urbi et orbi