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Narratives, Agency, & Electoral Maps

The entry of the data visualizations into the pitched narrative of the Presidential election is not new. If thought to begin in the collective unfolding of the election-night drama on television screens, as the casting of ballots long understood as a collective action of union has prompted a narrative of division, CNN offers a new model to personally intervene on one’s iPhone or android, as if to offer the means to ramp up agency on social media, inviting users to tap on one’s personal screen to build-your-own electoral map, perhaps to assuage one’s heightened anxiety, granting the illusion to allow yourself for entering your own alternative future. Echoing the algorithmic thinking of tallying “pathways to victory” we’d been following to exist the Trump Era with increased desperation, courtesy FiveThirtyEight and others, we imagined scenarios of the electoral constellation that might prepare for the dawning of something like a new age. As different campaigns used maps to assert “multiple pathways to victory,” the statistical likelihood of a victory seemed to suspend agency, in ways that would come to haunt the nation, in the aftermath of the election, as the tally of the vote was questioned in multiple ways, undermining the accuracy of the tally of individual votes, and injecting a degree of supicion dangerous to democracy in the name of ‘transparency.’

The standard map of the United States became a model for the President’s personal lawyer to present “evidence” by appealing the vote, long after the votes were tabulated, and winner declared, in a new form of aftermath for an election we had never experienced. If the security of paper ballots were put into question by the question of “hanging chads” that demanded hand counts with observers back in 2000, a weeks-long battle that suspended any announcement of a victor in a divided nation, that demanded “optical evidence” of the will of voters, by scrutinizing some 537 votes out of the entire nation in order to determine the victor of the electoral college, and forestall the celebrations of Democrats over the nation who expected that victory was at hand, the aftermath became distilled in 2020 to the contestation of an electoral map, the map that had come to mediate the election, as the President’s lawyer, looking like Frankenstein, returned from the dead, declared the continued existence of “multiple pathways to victory”–the very phrase that Joseph R. Biden’s circle had announced in predicting his victory. The “post-truth” announcement was not only post-truth, but a dumbed down version of voting before multiple American flags, presenting the states that the map labeled “red” that had voted for Biden to be at basis “red states,” and inevitably destined to fall into President Trump’s column. The news conference that was presented at Republican National Committee headquarters on November, 19, almost three weeks after the election was held, seemed to reclaim states’ electors as if they were enemy territory, as Trump’s legal team insisted that a spate of “irregularities in the voting system” had created numerous bases for serious fraudulence in tallies of the voting process.

November 19, 2020/AP/Jacquelyne Martin


The made-for-TV moment that was designed to circulate online as an iconic image crystallized the post-truth debates about the actual results of the election–a basis for the myth of a “stolen victory” that would continue until the tragically violent insurrectionary invasion of the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, 2021, a readily recognized power play of seizing the electoral map from the networks, denying the role of the media or television networks from making a prediction or declaring the victor, and deciding to gesture to the selective distortion of the electoral map as if it was evidence of the true “map” of the election, as the image of five “battleground” electoral states that the Trump campaign was announcing were the basis of its campaign to Keep America Great or Make It Great Again focussed, in a new use of Cold War rhetoric, on removing “outrageous iron curtain of censorship.”

Rudy Giuliani, personal attorney to US President Donald Trump, gestures at a map of election swing states marked as Trump 'Pathways to Victory' during a news conference in Washington November 19, 2020. — Reuters pic
November 19, 2020

The results of the Presidential election in these states were not particularly close, and did not recall the nail-biter of 2000, twenty years ago, when the inspection of paper ballots by impartial judges provided an unplanned basis for showcasing the legal efforts of moving the election to the United States Supreme Court as a final arbiter.

But if votes in either Michigan or Pennsylvania were hard to say were not conclusive, without either a legal theory or strategy to discard the existing tallies of the election, without disenfranchising hundreds of thousands, the post-truth campaign posited a systematic lack of vigilance of Democrats to play rough and tumble with registered voters and enshrined voting practices, arguing that the norms of voting practices were so systematically violated both in the voting machines themselves, especially paperless touch-screen voting machines that were argued to be open to manipulation, as well as the farming of ballots, and unreliability of mail-in voting practices.

The proliferating basis of instability for the tabulation of votes–the foundation of the democratic process–was argued to be inherently imperfect and corrupted at its root, suggesting the election was stolen. The argument that a small Texas company had made–“Allied Security Operations Group”–posited all software used in Smartmatic voting machines demonized as designed by a corporation with ties to Venezuelan founders: the basis among staunchly conservative activists to push a sense of widespread voting fraud–perpetuated on Newsmax in Dominion voting machines–was launched not by experts, but a myth of fraudulenceWashington Post has tied to Texas businessman Russell J. Ramsland, Jr., Trump advocates would adopt to discredit the outcomes of voting tallies already tabulated in battleground states.

The story of deep skepticism about the outcome of the election was in many ways nourished by the relative indeterminacy of possible outcomes for 2020, all of them hinging on battleground states that would push the electoral college one way or another. If the process seemed to remove the voting systems from the voters, the unfounded conspiracy theory Ramsland endorsed and boosted trotted out the shaky foundations of democratic institutions with readiness to defend the outcome they sought–and seemed to find consolation in an iconic map that painted these “swing” states a uniform red.

The fetishization of these deeply unstable and diverse states as uniformly “red”–and red as the identity that must be defended against the misinterpretation of magically “reassigned” surplus votes, performed by software in offshore databases run by multinationals, suggested the danger of diminishing the “red map” that Republicans have long dedicated themselves to enshrine–a map that has become so iconic since the 2016 Presidential election to seem like destiny to enter the once-hallowed walls of the West Wing of the White House among other furnishings quite early in the Trump Presidency–

–as if to preserve that magic moment of Election night that was such a surprise on national TV, even if, as has been widely observed far, far beyond this blog, and since Trey Yingst tweeted the image back in May, 2017, the choropleth is far from suited to represent popular consensus or the massive adulation he craves, as it erased the actual presence of voters, in favor of a snazzy graphic, made to shock for TV.

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Filed under 2020 election, data visualization, electoral maps, interactive maps, Red States/Blue States

To Levitate an Elephant

Rarely has a political convention focussed so strongly on distracting attention from current actualities and reconstituting a disparate party as the 2020 Republican Convention that met to nominate Donald J. Trump. While the country had been counting COVID mortality rates and lamenting police violence and the injustice of health inequalities across the nation, a balloon of good news was levitated, an elephant leaping to the stars. If the racially coded origins of the pachyderm were quite obscured by the red hued elephant rearing its trunk, the introduction of the emblem was an uncanny recuperation of the original radicalized intent of the circus elephant. Indeed the new version of the anthropomorphic emblem in 2020 seemed to distract attention by hearkening back to the circus elephant that first inspired the logo of the Republican party.

The origins of the party elephant are often linked to the anthropomorphic partisan emblem cartoonist Thomas Nast, even if they were openly adapted from the advertisements and publicity that circus impresario Phineas T. Barnum. The American circus entrepreneur, the first to feature a menagerie that was focussed on the elephant, and to do so by making increasingly clear references to race and the geographic origins of the first Bush Elephant he displayed, Jumbo, captured in Sudan by a game hunter in 1860 before being imported for Barnum’s circus by 1882 to such sizable crowds that a week at Madison Square Garden recouped costs of overseas transport and the beast. Now displayed to audiences as the “Towering Monarch of his Mighty Race“–openly invoking racial ideals as an attraction–at the center of his menagerie, the elephant promoted as the largest elephant held in captivity became a focus of mass communication, years before Jumbo was replaced by “sacred white elephant” of Burma, as a new centerpiece for currying racial fascination that was to become the mascot and icon of the Republican party after it was promoted by the pen of the cartoonist Thomas Nast, in the November, 1874 political cartoon that cast the Republican vote as a group of voters scared by the prospects of a Democratic President of dictatorial pretenses remaining in office.

Barnum’s eager hocking of a hoax–a trickster “hocus pocus” redirecting his audience’s attention to concerns that were latent in the display of the menagerie, of detecting racial difference, were converted into showmanship in the circus he promoted, in ways that might be profitably compared to the disguise of racial anxieties and feelings of persecution or economic compromises within the identification of “hoaxes” that Trump pointed out to the electorate in his candidacy. Trump’s career as a real estate promoter–a promoter more than an actual expert in construction–led him to promote a number of hoaxes happily that generated new attention and eager involvement in his candidacy. And the introduction of a new symbol for the Republican party, a “red elephant” rearing with five stars featured on his body, seemed to embody the tradition of hoaxes and promotions that the use of the elephant as an icon for the Republican party had long enjoyed, since it was introduced by cartoonist Thomas Nast in the era of Reconstruction. But the white elephant–who Nast introduced in the press as a new symbol of partisan purity in 1884 as proudly possessing the dignity of purpose unlike the beast fleeing from a President overstepping his office, cast the corruption-free party as a sacred beast with open reference to Barnum’s circus attraction, now using his pen to promote the pure skin color in a “Sacred Elephant” akin to a circus promoter but as a new partisan brand.

The bush elephant Jumbo had moved across borders: trafficked across the Mediterranean by a network of animal traders, first to German collectors as the traveling Menagerie Kreuzberg, Paris’ Jardin des Plantes, and London Zoo before Barnum featured “Jumbo” to impress audiences with his enormity. Barnum had renamed the elephant he bought for public display from the term of endearment,”Mumbo Jumbo” Londoners used to indicate its African origins, referencing to the masked male west African dancer, in Mandinka “Maamajomboo”, to promote its exoticism as a pagan idol, a fallen idol of sorts who become a popular attraction for London children to exercise imperialist imaginations before he succumbed to increasing fits of rage. The showman Barnum did not follow curry religions hokum, but displayed the elephant to bolster claims of being the Greatest Show on Earth; its iconic image gained center stage on promotional posters plastered in the towns where he toured, years before the elephant was adopted as the emblem of the GOP, Barnum strikingly made the elephant into a curiosity of openly racial intent.

The arrival of the “white” albino elephant during the era of American reconstruction after Jumbo’s death, Toung Taloung, was promoted as a gentler and more civilized version of the African Bush, and indeed of a different race, to delight popular circus-going audiences with the notion of an elephant from a different corner of the world by clear analogy to the debates of blood-purity and skin color that were dominating America, as has been argued: the white elephant was not only an exotic beast, but Barnum’s celebration of its “white” constitution could be understood by white circus-goers as a response to the tensions around racial tensions in Reconstruction America. While the introduction of a red elephant as a revised emblem of a partisan icon was by no means referring to race as explicitly as had P.T. Barnum in displaying African or Burmese pachyderms, the partisan icon of a red elephant–invoking the size of the red states in the electoral map, channeled connotations of race for American audiences. Is it a coincidence that the red elephant was trotted out in 2020 as a purified elephant–now entirely red!–to meet the tastes of the Party of Trump? The large size of the elephant seemed capacious enough to contain the many hoaxes that Trump had promoted from before announcing his Presidency, in order to create a political movement rooted in promotion and promoting the sense of rugged stalwart isolation before the dangers of a rigged world.

The 65 days that led to chaos at the Capitol - BBC News

The introduction of the red elephant as a party emblem boasted the chromic homogeneity of the GOP in ways that almost seemed to revive the long forgotten fascination in elephants as a nativist symbol. If the cartoonist Thomas Nast famously assigned the dignity, probity, and size of the popular central figure of the circus menagerie as an aspiration of how claims to dignity that might allow his party to win the White House once again, Trump consciously chose the beast of a uniformity of color to express aspirations of recreating the red map in the 2020 Presidential election, in selecting it as the new emblem of a party that had grown increasingly identified with his person, casting the new red elephant as a bold statement of partisan aspirations that may have bracketed race–but channeled the deeply racialized character of the white elephant of Reconstruction. While the story of Nast’s invention of the anthropomorphic icon has been often recited, the use of an elephant to incarnated the current capaciousness of a desired electoral victory echoed the rhetoric of securing the presidency by replicating the same margin of victory in red states alone, in the victorious image of a rearing, martial elephant, as if auguring a rise of red states in 2020 as staging a cartographic reconfiguration of the electoral map.

The elephant was an emblem of the go-it-alone spirit of the party, repurposing the animal affirm the capaciousness of a secessionist nation that echoed a Manichaean gloss of “sovereignty” RedStateSecession.org had extended across all of North America by 2019. The image of a “peaceful red state secession” was by no means mainstream in the political party, or a part of its platform, that no platform was ever devised for Trump’s renomination courted the broad worries of the dilution of a white majority nation filled with “illegal aliens” and foreigners Republicans had often mapped onto blue states–and echoed the strength that a “country formed from red states” might provide, in substitution for the internationalist commitments of a non-white majority nation that the actual United States held–promising the rebirth of a “country formed from Red States” alone, in a 2018 Facebook meme might generate a form of national renewal adhering to the U.S. Constitution. The pseudo-map, which circulated on social media and the internet, rather than in printed form, was itself a hoax–to use the terms Barnum claimed–using the smoke and mirrors of data visualization to crop the counties of an electoral map as if they would provide the new borders of a “new country formed from Red States” as if it was more faithful to the spirit of America–while leaving little question in the mind of viewers that the verb “follow” meant adhering to the politics of national renewal that were tied to a closure of national borders, embrace of white-majority culture, and refusal of “socialist” health care.

Red-State Secession - YouTube
RedStateSecession.org, 2018

The pseudo-map existed only as a derivative copied form of the distribution of Republican voters in recent elections, but it was powerful and strong as an image of common like-minded ideological preferences and political cultures, a sort of resegregation of the nation that might reveal the enlargement of the old south, not suggesting only white-majority areas, but areas where conservative voters had won since 2018. While the bizarre image of the “Sovereign States of America” took the logic of rewriting sovereignty of clear borders to an extreme, in its explicit adoption of an electoral map, omitting Broward and Miami-Dad counties in Florida, omitting much of the Northeast, Illinois–home of Barack Obama–and Southern Wisconsin, as well as California and most all of Arizona, the monochrome icon seemed to willfully dispense with California, New York, and Washington out of hand, with a vitriol that only grew in the year of social justice movements of 2020.

The emblem of the big red elephant referenced a notion of a nation created from a congeries of conservative-dominant counties, disdaining “blue states” as compromises not worthy of inclusion, lest they sacrificed ideals of America’s purity in light of the danger of immigration by creating new borders for the nation as a nation. The elevation of the monochrome pachyderm became a floating signifier of the ideals of red purity on which the party would base itself in a new image of sovereignty, often asserting economic independence by the addition of oil- and gas-rich provinces within a “Sovereign States of America” of the like-minded social media bubbles, echoed in the attacks directed to “globalists” on Canada-based alt right networks like Rebel Media, that proposed a repurposing of nation as a concept and conceit, and would be mapped onto the new sacred collectivity of a purely red beast that threw earlier Republican’s red, white, and blue elephants out as relics of RINO’s–those “Republican in Name Only,” and to map a scrappy new collectivity which hewed to one geopolitical agenda and moral script. Did the “fantasy map” not only push the logic of extreme federalism to its ends, but in juxtapose the “Sovereign States of America” with a far-fetched notion of energy independence, dismissing the allegedly “internationalist” regions of the US-Mexico border, the northeast, and Pacific rim as an internationalist “Bluetopia”–by remapping the Keystone XL and other crude pipelines as in line with American economic interests located entirely on sovereign soil.

Tale of Two Countries, 2019

To be clear, the map was a bit of a “hoax,” or the logic of the hoax–a term deriving from “hocus pocus,” the claim of a magician or juggler, and itself the sham-Latin perversion of the sacramental claim that the host present the body of Jesus Christ–an etymological origin for “hoax” that was oddly appropriate to the re-presentation of the nation as another beast, and the rewriting of sovereign allegiance to an underlying fabric of America in red states alone, a blood and soil doctrine that mapped energy extraction to allegiance to the political party representing the nation.

The red elephant rising echoed the glee of remapping of national sovereignty as if sovereignty were lines of affect–ties to the true interest of the nation, evident in the preservation of racial hierarchies, preserved, in the circus, by the in If Trumpism depended on a new “red nation,” RedStateSecession.org materialized a cartographic rewriting of the nation and national sovereignty, often privileging energy independence and clear borders, and imposing those borders on a map, but affirming the elephant as an image of its capacious quality–adding the petroleum reserves of Alaska and shale deposits across Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba as if to make up for the absence of the wealth of California, the northwest, and the northeast from a “sovereign” map that would end culture wars. Revising the “Jesusland” map of 2004 to include shale deposits in the north integrated a network of petroleum pipelines from like-minded “red states” north of the border, imagining a “United States of America” of radically redrawn borders embracing Calgary, Regina, Edmonton and Saskatoon as its own endless reserve of energy and national wealth–a new fantasy of national “belonging” that denied the actually lopsided nature of the America’s population and wealth.

Mark Joseph, February 2020

The fear of globalism was a steeped in internationalist rhetoric of “open borders,” disguising a disdain for national culture and America First, in its promotion of open borders, was deemed a dismantling of the nation as we know it. The map of “red America” was a rewriting of NAFTA, and a rewriting of the secessionist Civil War, imagining the Mason-Dixon line elevated to embrace all Pennsylvania, imagining the survey that defined the border disputes between Maryland, West Virginia and Delaware as a basis to expand the division between two “United States,” one blue and one red, a spectacle of sorts that engaged observers in the image of a remapped red United States, as if imagining the old northern border of the confederacy to be hiked to include the swing state of Pennsylvania, even above the “West Line” Charles Mason surveyed between Pennsylvania and Maryland in 1768, to create a mythic country of 2020 that expanded upon Trump’s surprising 2016 electoral victory, as if re-imagining the boundary line that became a division of slave states and free states as a division between Americans and internationalists. Indeed the determination of the new “boundary” able to preserve American integrity was cast as natural, but included the area along which the Keystone XL was planned to transport crude and Canadian shale reserves as well within the United States of America–arriving at an economic integrity that the Confederate States of America had lacked.

“A Plan of the West Line or Parallel of Latitude,” Charles Mason 1768 (detail)

Such a realization of economic imperatives transcended the use of lines of latitude as a dividing line; the inclusion of the land where the Keystone ran within the “new nation” gave it an integrity often lacking in the division of the nation by political afliations or voting patterns–

How to split the USA into two countries: Red and Blue
Dicken Shrader, 2018

–but sought to prevent the fluid Geography_of_Gilead, in which “where the edges are we aren’t sure . . . they vary, according to the attacks and counter-attacks,” but try to preserve an image of American integrity as if it were “natural,” by incorporating the petroleum pipelines and the shale reserves from which they carry crude sludge to realize the adoption in the 2016 Republican Party platform of promoting the Keystone XL within a vision of “North American energy independence” as if the Bluetopian environmentalists of the previous Democratic administration had strayed from such ideals. The map realized an actual division that seemed economically viable, if it would indeed “Support #CALEXIT!” as the “Tale of Two Countries” meme suggested.

If the electoral map has become. a spectacle of repeated glossing, fetishizing, and analysis since 2008, often wrestling with an imagined discrepancy between the appearance of greater sovereign acreage of a party with fewer votes, essentializing “redness” lay in the eye of the observer, and the old partisan mascot served to embody the identity of a party that trumped reality, as if the continuity of red counties might gain sovereign status of its own.

Unreported Stats - FactCheck.org

There was something almost Barnum-esque, as much as Alt Right, in the prominence with which Trump raised th hoax of globalism toexpose as a conspiracy of “globalist elites” as a threat to the nation in almost existential terms. P. T. Barnum had hewed the cultivation of hoaxes as a means to attract his audiences in the first age of mass-printing, viewing the “hoax” Barnum viewed as a part of the spectacle and business plan for the circus that he pioneered: from the display of mermaids to human freaks, Barnum promoted illusions to attract the complicity of spectators in “hoaxes” in ways surprisingly akin to the centrality of “hoaxes” as hooks able to attract and to consolidate support for Trump’s Presidency and presidential campaign. If some hoaxes served to distract attention of collusion of the Trump campaign and Russian government, Trump had long reserved ire for the allegedly internationalist “hoax” of global warming and climate change he had disdained revealed in 2015, before announcing his candidacy, through casting the coronavirus pandemic as “their new hoax” in the final year of his Presidency, from February to March of 2020, adopting the term “hoax news” later dropped to the damning “fake news” to suggest the extent of an information society that was rigged. Trump’s labeling of “hoaxes” is not only an echo of QANON, but used the identification of hoaxes engaged in a “plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty” to attracted many supporters by seeing economic integration, internationalism, much as Barnum promoted hoaxes (if he didn’t call them that in announcements) as a way to attract audiences. For Trump, hoaxes served to stoke popular anger by unmasking how his opponents disrespected the nation’s integrity: Trump attacked “global warming hoaxsters” of scheming to raise higher taxes in January 2014, and labeling a “hoax provided a powerful way to rally his base before a new sense of the nation, freed from the allegedly pernicious logic of “open borders,” globalist elites, digital media and internationalism–the very same specters he decried on January 6, 2021.

If “hoax” was not at first among the preferred words of rage to use in his social media accounts, it grew as a way of voicing collective rage. A text analysis of Trump’s tweets charts how he grew aligned with political discourse as a way to vent his anger and direct the rage of his constituents, as his use of social media morphed from personal attacks promoting the bogus “birther” theory about Barack Obama’s birthplace–a primal hoax–to the calling out of hoaxes more quickly than they might be mapped, processed, or charted, as he alternated schoolyard insults to channel a paranoid persecution of describing hoaxes with greater traction as he ridiculed investigation into the Russian ties of his campaign and cabinet. The twittersphere encouraged Trump to act as a border guard, identifying “hoaxes” with illusory clarity on a medium that encouraged the retweeting falsehoods; as Trump attacked Fake News, his public statements included an increased number of falsehoods, according to Factba.se’s tracing, rising with his social media presence, calling out hoaxes became a broader truth game that extending to questioning the accuracy of voting machines of the 2020 Presidential election, allegedly both owned and operated from overseas. And as claims of a stolen election seem set to be relaunched in debates about voting integrity, the fierce urgency of identifying a hoax may loose momentum as they are increasingly evidently about race. The candidates’s visibly vertiginous delight in discerning of globalist hoaxes only came back to bite him only as he persisted casting the spread of COVID-19 not as a pandemic, but just another liberal hoax–stretching credibility in the face of cognitive dissonance of rising mortality rates of coronavirus and Trump claiming people’s surprise . . .

Claims of hoaxes–or fake news–had mutated into claims that the candidate alone understood or got global politics. The red elephant introduced in the 2020 Convention afforded a new image of the nation that was the inverse of the hoax. It was a statement of the credulity of the party and the party line, as well as an identity for partisan unity–channeling a mental imaginary rooted not in continuity or federalism, but a uniformity of consensus in Trump’s own words. Trump’s attachment to “hoaxes” as compelling fighting words defined much of his presidency, as much as his social media presence. But the identification of hoaxes as objects of scorn, and insults to the nation, found a counterpart in the newly triumphant icon of decorous anger Ronna McDaniel unveiled in 2019, in hopes to consolidate or conjure a new alliance of red states to promote the Republican hopes for victory in 2020.

Charlote, NC/August 2, 2019

One could detect a sense of the circus when political strategist Ronna McDaniel took it on herself to channel Vanna White and middle America, revealing a reinvigorated elephant as a new logo for the Grand Old Party for 2020, her flowing red dress underscoring to the new monochrome of icon. Having been named to lead the RNC by Donald Trump after she had served as a delegate from Michigan who supported Trump in 2016, as the vacancy opened, with Rience Priebus becoming Chief of Staff, with the only precondition dropping her maiden name to erase any hint she had supported her uncle Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, McDaniel was elevated to be the chair of the Party, ensured that she could be counted on for her allegiance to Trump’s agenda and to promote his brand–demonstrating allegiance by imitating Trumps’s own warnings of voter fraud before the 2020 election and warning widespread fraud had led to the electoral loss of the man she trumpeted as as a “moral leader” while using her zealous defense of Trump as a cover to steer RNC funds to companies run by family members or as a quid pro quo for donations.

President Donald Trump arrives to speak at Republican National Committee, Aug. 24, 2020, in Charlotte NC
(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Could not one say that the use of the red elephant by Trump, a man widely known to delight in manipulating details of his public image, and indeed his brand, channeled P.T. Barnum in re-presenting the red elephant as a party emblem to the 2020 Republican Convention in Charlotte, NC? The elephant that was displayed in the political convention that was located proudly in a southern state without explanation by RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel in 2019, as an icon of partisan purity by 2020. Was the red elephant not a recuperation of the spectacle of the elephant as a refraction of America’s still fraught racial politics? Barnum was a master of public relations, and used the magnificence of the elephant as a centerpiece for his show, and an elephant seemed to incarnate hopes for an augur of victory in the next Presidential election, in the memes and media circus of unveiling of an icon of partisan identity. The symbol of the 2020 Republican Convention was unveiled to bridge novelty and tradition within the Republican party, but invoked performative rituals of circus-going as a spectacle about race, whiteness, privilege, and spectatorship–as much as a new mascot. Its political symbolism might be placed in a volume of Circus Studies or political symbolism, a regal pachyderm that recalled the Monarch of Illusions by invoking the partisan remapping of American politics as a swath of red states. The energetic red elephant proposed as a new symbol of partisan identity seemed an attempt to reenergize the party headed and embodied by the circus-master Donald J. Trump.

Was not Barnum, a showman who had perfected the arts of mass communication in the Gilded Age, gliding from popular entertainments to mass spectacles with unprecedented ease, able to transform the circus into an economic machine and public spectacle in ways eerily akin to how Trump has changed the political process of the United States? As much as changing Free Speech, Trump has exploited anxieties by offering what audiences “wanted to see” in a new regime of politics and political performance, continuing a Barnum tradition of combining minstrelsy, freak shows, entertainers, collections of menageries, and clowns in a “big tent” of the profitable economy of the circus show. Barnum was not only an orchestrater who expanded the circus as an institution of modern life and mass culture, converting spectacles into profits by promising to transport audiences into the fantastic, but was a promoter who insistently promised “good faith” to his audiences even as this strained credibility.

Barnum was the great American creator of ‘hoaxes’ central to capturing public attention and framing public opinion. Although the “Sacred Elephant” he later displayed to extend anxieties of the determination of racial difference to the animal kingdom was not white, promotion of the elephant that was appropriated by Thomas Nast as an icon of the Republican party prominently triggered fears of the identity of racial characteristics by universalizing them to the ostensibly pleasurable arena of the circus. Hoaxes were there from the very start of Barnum’s career as a promoter of the fantastic and curious wonder for audience’s pleasure: Barnum’s career began with his purchase of a slave he exhibited as George Washington’s own Mammy–a figure able to cross racial lines, peddling racial stereotypes in a spectacle of servility. Barnum promoted the woman, Joice Heth, as a sideshow curiosity, importing the plantation economy into vaudeville, as the allegedly hundred and sixty one year old Mammy of the first president entertained white audiences with barely credible stories of how she had nursed George Washington, that promoted the social dynamic of a plantation as the American narrative, as he deployed race and racial anxieties in a human museum, in the American Museum in downtown New York from 1842: as improbably as the White Elephant he imported from Burma gained crowds as an alleged education on racial difference, Barnum began from exploiting desires, fears and boundaries of normalcy; mass advertising in printed flyers attracted audiences’ interest to freak shows, promising “prices reduced to suit all classes” and boasting of his own populism, offering audiences primarily “instruction and happiness” while pursuing financial gain. The show begged complicity with the master-showman–Barnum boasted at combining “smoke and mirrors” with “a little ‘clap-trap’ occasionally, in the way of transparencies, flags, exaggerated pictures, and puffing advertisements” in “the wildness of wonderfully instructive and amusing realities,” that set their own criteria of truthfulness.

P.T. Barnum’s 1835 Handbill Advertising Joice Heth as “Natural & National Curiosity”

Was prominent billing of a long-lived manny as a “natural and national curiosity” a template for inviting audiences to witness the contrast the “sacred” elephant to darker African elephants, shipped to America at Barnum’s expense?

Mr. Barnum’s White Burmese Elephant, ‘Toung Taloung”

P.T. Barnum had arrived at the use of the elephant as a focus on entertainment and moral instruction followed how his American Museum suggested a welcome traffic with and blurring of knowledge and science in the name of compelling illusions and pleasure. And after the Museum burned down in 1865, rather than being the end of his career, he promoted “P.T. Barnum’s Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus” as a road show, publicizing its contents for audiences across the nation. He returned to New York by 1877, promising to cater to all audiences’ pleasures by featuring the new addition of “$500,000 worth of Foreign Features” with assurance of “prices reduced to suit all classes,” emphasizing his egalitarianism. If Barnum boasted “the largest, finest, and best menagerie and circus in the world” he cast himself not as a promoter but as acting “to my countrymen and countrywomen as a minister of instruction and happiness, while pursuing my primary purpose of making money.” The arrival of a Bush Elephant purchased in 1882 from London Zoo as the central exhibit in the menagerie displayed in Madison Square Garden, promoted widely as “the largest elephant in captivity,” whose prominent billing and attracted such massive crowds to recoup costs of transport and purchase in just four days; Jumbo’s later 1885 death in a train accident led the elephant to be replaced him with the commanding attraction of a Burmese albino elephant, shipped to New York, to replace the bush elephant’s central billing in his menagerie. Barnum long exploited print advertising, and promoted the “sacred” Burmese, Toung Taloung, imported from the Near East, as a “white elephant” whose different stock than elephants of African origin was morally instructive, Barnum, as if its white skin denoted a different race, courting popular fascination with miscegenation and shades of skin color in Reconstruction America.

The hoax, as so often in recent years, was part of the point. Even if the display of the white elephant was more about race than exoticism, the shift from the size of the elephant Barnum promoted fit the times of Reconstruction, but tapped into the display of race and racial difference within Barnum’s promotion of a carefully curated image of Americana. Barnum featured exploitation of race in his showmanship in 1835 by exhibiting former slave Joice Heth to paying audiences, as the mammy of George Washington as a national curiosity in New York’s Niblo’s Garden. The hoax who delighted audiences by promising storeis of raising “little George” for the Washington family, Barnum exploited the place of enslavement held in the national fabric of America led directly to his subsequent exploitation of an elephant in the racial politics of reconstruction America by 1884, when he had promoted the purity and probity of an albino “white elephant” before it arrived in New York by ship from London as an animal possessing greater distinct characteristics from the African Grey he had featured in his menagerie and traveling show–a probity featured as Nast used the pachyderm as an anthropomorphic icon of the Republican party that very year.

Who else but a zealot and convert to the cause of a candidate obsessed with political promotion and image would realize the critical importance of rebranding of the party in anticipation for the 2020 election, to take time to promote and announce the roll-out of a new political iconography of the elephant–a red elephant–with purity of purpose? While Trump’s commitment to steer the party to victory in 2018 midterms had failed to translate unprecedented advantages in fundraising McDaniel had ensured to a margin of victory, the largest elephant in the room of animating the electorate for the Presidential election. Was it surprising Trump felt the party needed rebranding? The elephant would be a potent signifier of the purity of red states to those who wanted it, inviting images of a domestication of wildness, a channeling of white anger, and a sense of bucking tradition and loosening of decorum, all rolled into a rearing beast.

President Trump Addressing 2018 Republican National Committee Winter Meeting

The redesigned “red elephant” was perhaps a white elephant of political iconography, but a new regime of truth for the political party. For in abandoning the red, white and blue to promote a uniformity of purpose and single mindedness that echoed the “sacred elephant” cartoonist Thomas Nast had adopted to represent the Republican party’s nobility by anthropomorphizing Barnum’s new exotic addition to his famed menagerie–a “white elephant,” nobler and more kind and docile than its African cousin–in ways that would consciously play to the consciousness of race among circus-goers in post-Reconstruction America. Was the new red elephant, distinctive in its chromatic design, a color that might not only signal rage, or anger at the declining moral standards and protection of liberties, but a conformity around an image, in ways that Trump, a master of the image, must have found appealing as a new branding of the political party under his own imprint?

GOP Square.svg

While the elephant was long red, white, and blue, the new monochrome elephant projected an imaginary of a unified party, no doubt composed of “red” states, purified and poised to advance into the 2020 Presidential election as a united front, long before the social justice protests of 2020 that reacted in shock to George Floyd’s brutal murder by white police, head forced to the ground in Minneapolis by local police before a crowd of onlookers, and the social reckoning these protests bought by the convention itself. Having spent party funds on covering all legal fees related to defending the sitting President from charges of Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential campaign, McDaniel seemed to seek to make a fresh start for Trump’s campaign for reelection, adopting a logo of chromatic conformity for a campaign that would not adopt or issue a party platform, but that revolved around the new leader of the party.

How the party would map onto the country was a question that was on the front plate of many separatist groups by the summer of 2019, when the question of how a non-nation rightly secedes to create a ‘country’ prompted many cartographic fantasies rooted in the appeal that “nation” was an ethno-linguistic group of common customs, and the alleged principle that all states have the right to secede from the union: “red states” did not really follow state lines, but could be carved from electoral districts and drawn by software in a loopy map of alleged unity, not without appeal to many white supremacist ideals, avoiding most coastal regions, and larger cities outside Texas and Georgia. While this internet map originated from a political fringe, the fantasy of a monochrome elephant foretold a red coalition’s coming victory, as in inviting readers to contemplate the legal justification that might exist for eastern Texas, western Louisiana, or the western panhandle of Florida to secede from the nation.

Red State Secession/August, 2019

Redesigning the very republic as if in DIY drawing of electoral districts, in an inelegant from of gerrymandering that dropped sections of Florida, Wisconsin, Michicagn, Ohio, Arizona, Colorado and Virginia and a strip of Nevada that echoe the demand to “do your own research” to recognize your allies. The oppositional politics of the map of almost Manichean design was best met by a uniformly red elephant as its emblem. Perhaps the deep fantasy of cartographic excision was less based on the secession of the Civil War, than the Looney Tunes logic of separating Florida from the United States to the Atlantic with a saw in 1949, with the cry “that does it–South America, take it away!” to redraw the nation in the Red State Secession by cutting Broward, Palm Beach, and Miami-Dade counties from the Union, in a hardly convincing map of states that “follow the Constitution”–derived from electoral maps. The almost comic cohesion of a red elephant might enjoy suggests a regime of stagecraft and suggestion, that openly showed little but gestured to a rich history of political iconography far deeper than its crude cartography suggests.

Bugs bunny cuts florida off America.

The fantasy of the monochrome elephant might be sufficient to accommodate all local interests in a buoyant beast of even larger girth was hardly new. The image of a monochrome elephant s party logo began with the introduction of the animal by Republican cartoonist Thomas Nast, who took the image of an albino elephant–the first “white elephant” of allegedly greater purity than its African cousin–at the height of reconstruction to appeal to Republican’s adherence to greater dignity in their own party’s principled platform of reform. By the time that the convention to anoint Donald J. Trump as nominee for a party without a platform got underway, as if to tell us we had been watching dangerous performances all summer long in social justice protests spread across America, the remodeled red elephant that hearkened back to Thomas Nast’s pioneering use of the bull elephant to champion the vigor and capaciousness of a party to which he belonged as an image of the nation and the purity of its leadership. The recuperation of what Nast saw as an image of nobility and purity of purpose in Barnum’s new addition to a menagerie boasting moral instruction was also in ways a return of the repressed, tapping into the racial anxieties that were projected onto the African elephant as an emblem of the domestication of the savage beast.

For elimination of all tricolor in the new brand of the President’s party recycled the very racial insensitivity and unsavoriness that the exhibition of circus elephants had long signalled. When circus entrepreneur P.T. Barnum extolled the purity of the exhibited albino “white” elephant he purchased to introduce to American audiences as a nobler alternative to African Greys, he desired to please circus-going audiences in Reconstruction America. Unlike the darker “cousin” Jumbo, who after being captured in Abyssinia in 1861, was sold by animal traders to the Jardin des Plantes as the largest elephant in captivity, and who Barnum had brought to America by boat from London as a centerpiece for his traveling show, Barnum promoted the albino elephant as a gentler, nobler, and more docile breed. The creature, described as of different cast and moral status than other elephants who had toured the nation, became a media sensation whose claims to purity Nast had channeled. While the cartoonist hoped to communicate the new moral character of the Republican party, in the very costume Barnum outfitted and exhibited the Burmese beast, the racial anxieties he tapped were eerily akin to those Trump stoked at the 2020 Convention. Barnum had promoted a beast not captured from Africa, but from Burma’s court, where it was regularly serenaded and invested with sacred character, suggested the subject removed from “blackness” and slavery, a different stock and perhaps race of elephant, in ways that the audiences of Barnum’s circus could not fail to appreciate and discern. Was the mild eugenics of Barnum’s beast not implicit in the “white elephant” by which Nast embodied his own political party? The Red elephant not only was a new embodiment of the party, but mapped it onto red states.

Thomas Nast, “The Sacred Beast” (1884)

The new logo keyed into a color line, in ways that may hint at the future meaning of the semiotic weight of the party logo for generations who may only know the political animal and not the living beast. To be sure, whatever future semantic properties of the pachyderm as a symbol of political party were raised in 2010–as the animal’s significance seemed remote from then-current political debates–

–found an unexpected response as the Party of Trump reclaimed the elephant in ways that reclaimed its spectacularity in a circus, as the jumbotron in Charlotte, NC, unveiled the spectacle of the pachyderm, devoting far more attention as the party leaders who planed the meeting wanted to discuss the “new logo” combining the iconic elephant and the city’s crown, describing the city they claimed to be far more concerned with business and development of the city. The logo’s unveiling followed President Trump’s disgraceful call for members of the U.S. Congress to “go back to the countries from which they came” in a city viewed as “business-first, not politics-first,” calling the first order of the day being “the unveiling”–a term often associated with commemoration than politics.

August 1, 2019

The Republican Party unveiled a sleek lines of a new red elephant in preparation for the 2020 Republican Convention recuperated the performative origins of the once-sturdy quadruped as it appeared on the jumbotron, whose very size communicated how much air the presence of Donald J. Trump had sucked out of Charlotte’s Convention Center.

What the party billed as a rejuvenation of the vitality of the old elephant staged a rebirth of the party at a time when its ties to the nation had been increasingly tenuous, and seemed to mask the deep fragmentation that the politics of divisive opposition had been stoked by the shock jock tactics of a President over his first term.

The GOP elephant had by the 1970s and 1980s retained its stability in abstract form, but seemed an unassailable image of the party’s security, its sleek form a clear contrast to the far more fluid, and perhaps mutable, Democratic donkey–and, when the streamlined icon emerged int he late 1970s, to assert its modernity.

Democratic donkey and Republican elephant

The new “red elephant” was not only a logo unveiled at the 2020 Republican Convention, of course, but an emblem that had arisen on social media, akin to the new emblems of patriotic devotion that were first engraved by the U.S. Mint on national currency to offer evidence of the piety of the after the Civil War, when Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase received letters from ministers beseeching him to include adequate “ recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins,” and imploring him “What if our Republic were not shattered beyond reconstruction? Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation?,” leading Chase to impress upon the Director of the Philadelphia Mint the need of a device able to depict “the trust of our people in God . . . on our national coins” by a device and motto proclaiming national recognization of God, reasoning that it was evident that “no nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense.” Facebook groups Red Elephant media launched March 5, 2017 or The Red Elephant–a FB group and twitter handle, @redelephantt–founded April 9, 2018–suggested the new hue of the populist party of Donald J. Trump , an aggregator and amplifier of tweets by folks like Rep. Jim Jordan, Rep. Matt Gaetz, Gov. Ron De Santis and Marjorie Taylor Greene, a new republican Party that issued the post-inaugural proclamation to be back in other form.

Donald Trump’s party may not have known how sharp his focus on Law & Order would be in 2019. But the focus on a red-state party, which commanded consensus as much as presented a platform, used the traditional party logo as an “proud and strong symbol” of–pardon the pun–a deeply truncated party, which might have been indeed a stuffed beast, eviscerated of any vital principles, and more of a symbolic avatar of fealty to a new ideal type of red states. The Republican elephant of 2020 unveiled in Charlotte, North Carolina, attempted to invest strengthened unity for a party that had changed its identity, in ways that threatened its resilience. The proverbial four blind men who came to describe an elephant might not detect the chromatic shift, but the seismic shift in partisan identity was huge in a party whose sense of identity was being strong-armed by the sitting President. The prime political parties of American politics were defined since the late nineteenth century were symbolized by animals in ways that reveal the dominance of the popular press and editorial cartooning of Harpers magazine, where cartoonist Thomas Nast elevated the elephant to a symbol of party, embodying the collective vote in less that laudatory ways, have become potent signifiers their partisans invested with positive qualities to define their affinities, invested in tricolor mascots imbued with patriotism, the elephant associated with memory, probity, and intelligence bearing three stars, and the donkey, populist, dedicated, and stubborn in holding its ground, emblazoned with four, no longer the American flag that the GOP had once pretended to incarnate for its members, but far more akin to the image of capaciousness and stolidity of tradition, known sufficiently embodied only by red states. 

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Sneak Attacks?

The anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima gives one pause as it marks the emergence of a world of remote military strikes conducted by GPS, or on a UTM grid that cast agency at a distance from ethics or ethical choice. One thinks not only of the global cartoons of global expanse that seemed to unroll geopolitical spaces for their American readers, but of the new ethics of point-based precision. For the point-based maps created vertiginously elevated the subjectivity of their readers across the 40,000 maps produced between 1941-45 by the U.S. Army Map Service so as to remove most Americans from all sense of a shared ethical framework of humanity as the first atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima.

The framing of military invasion as a game of geospatial dominance discounted the massive incalculable loss of human life in campaigns of prolonged fire-bombing and atomic holocaust. While the American military insisted that radiation burns were but “Tokyo tales,” as the government mole in the New York Times, William Laurence, asserted, due to the levels of radioactivity of the Atom Bomb, the cartoon suggested this was but the latest case of action at a distance, asserting a clear causality between the “invasion” of the city in Hawai’i, recently part of Japan, and the drawing and quartering that the explosive man-made catastrophe. The disembodied head miming words of feigned apology invoke a racist stereotype of a hasty apology delivered in pidgin English, disproportionate to the cascading effects it brought.

The oddness of this cartoon rests in its effective displacement of responsibility for the start of the atomic age. Indeed, the narrative this cartoon bears traces of how this new spherical global space suggested suggested a territorial dominance across the new spaces of air travel: the cartoon that appeared after the atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6, 1945 are particularly striking as it appears to remove any sense of the agency of atomic holocaust; it cast the explosive logic of the atom bomb as a delayed quid pro quo response to the “Jap Sneak Attack” of 1941; it asked readers to consider not the effects or impact of the atom bomb, but, rather evasively, who really was “the Fellow who Lighted the Fuse,” as if he were to blame: before any images of the destruction of both cities was described, the Chicago Tribune included testimony of Enola Gay crew members, hailing from Chicago, as an exclusive, with a discussion of the physics of atomic bombs and a reminder that a number of B-29 bombers were posed for further destructive missions.

The front-page color cartoon hid the explosion of the Atom Bomb over Hiroshima, offering an occluded view on a spherical globe: in colorfully eye-catching attractive Hearst style, the colorful cartoon map was the sole visual documentation of the bomb’s effects, masking the devastation of its impact by the geopolitical logic that led to dropping an atom bomb. The only sense of agency in the cartoon is that poor fellow, his head now rising into the sky, severed from his body, as his bloody knife, patriotic flag for the Empire of Japan, and his military boots and gloves were imagined to be blasted far above the globe’s atmosphere. While the cartoon surely registered the global significance of the dropping of the A Bomb over a densely populated city across the Pacific Ocean, the responsibility for doing so was identified with a racialized floating head, finally severed not only from limbs but militaristic flag that suggested a rising sun of Pacific domination, but was now distastefully merged with a stereotype of obsequiousness that belies militancy. Is the beheaded soldier who once wielded a now shattered sword sorry for the catastrophe of the atom bomb?

Carey Orr, “the Fellow Who Lighted the Fuse,” American Newspaper Repository

In fact, he is apologizing, or is forced to apologize, for similar stereotypical sneakiness of earlier attacking Pearl Harbor. The informed American reading the cartoon recognizes as clearly traceable to dropping the atom bomb, by a link as evident as the arcing flightpath by which Boeing B-29 Superfortress the Enola Gay carried the 9,000 pound Little Boy to drop 26,000,000 pounds of high explosives on Japanese civilians.

The spent match that lies on the “big island” of Hawai’i marks the site of where Japanese bombers attacked an extra-territorial military base, at Pearl Harbor. The map serves to help process the devastating precedent of aerial destruction. And it shifts the destructive impact of the bomb, incongruously, to a palette of a sunset just removed from U.S. territory, where the curling fuse that we can only see as running across the Pacific theater leads to a land lying behind global curvature of the earth, that almost occludes the global significance of introducing the atomic age. The bomb is an illustration of the end of the war by the victory of military mapping, and an affirmation of the fact that the only map is global now. But the ethics of that map are more than problematic. It carries a clear sense of “out of sight, out of mind,” imbuing the deaths of over a hundred thousand Japanese civilians–in an odd mirror reflection of the fears of Japanese attacking United States territory–with a sense of victory, painted as the conclusion to the war that Japanese single-handedly begun. The cartoon is a rather concerted shirking of collective responsibility for immediately killing 70,000 Japanese civilians and killing another 50,000 by radiation poisoning created a precedent of instantaneous mass slaughter. It must be paired with the sustained campaign of military disinformation that William “Atomic Bill” Laurence drove, downplayed any destructive effects of the atomic blast’s radiation levels as purely “Japanese propaganda,” as if to conceal its own efforts to portray the role of radiation in contributing to particularly painful and gruesome deaths.

As U.S. President Harry S. Truman would explain to the world that the delivery of the bomb had released nothing less than “the force from which the sun draws its power . . . against those who had brought war to the Far East,” in an impromptu lesson of nuclear physics, the payload of greater power than 20,000 tons of TNT, describing the bomb in empyrean terms that took one’s eyes off the ground as an act of “harnessing of the basic power of the universe” against the Japanese empire that had taken the rising sun as its emblem and flag, as if he was righting the natural order of the universe by using the sun’s awesome power to right the imbalance of a natural order and to deliver destruction in a purely retributive fashion. If almost a quarter of Americans stated after Japan’s surrender that they would have accepted the destructive explosive powers of more bombs earlier in the war, press dispatches claimed that the bombing would not leave any greater medical injuries than conventional bombs; as mortal effects of the absorption of radiation became clear, Lt. General Leslie Groves, having directed the atom bomb program, affirmed the same logic, enjoining reporters who “did not like the way we ended [the war], to remember who started it.” How many times had Lt. Gen. Grove, observing the same map, had arrived at the conclusion after contemplating the range of air routes the bombers would take, as a way of rationalizing the inhumanity of the event by reducing its devastation to the military logic of quid pro quo retribution for military deaths.

Lt. General Groves Observes Map of Air Routes to Japan
A journalist stands on the former site of a movie theater in Hiroshima, Japan, in September 1945, one month after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city.
Journalist Surveys Damage of Hiroshima Bomb, September, 1945/Stanley Troutman

Who, indeed, was making the sneak attack? If the yellow and orange hued pyrocumulous clouds caused by atomic blasts suggested the fireball of a nuclear or atomic explosion, the cartoon clearly referenced not only the explosion that left 200,000 estimated dead in its immediate aftermath, but the fireball of the atomic explosion as a sunset of the Japanese Empire. The first dropping of an atomic bomb on civilian population by the United States–

–was sunset of the Japanese empire, seen from the empyrean perspective of the navigation of aeronautical space that allowed its delivery at precise global coordinates. Did newspaper readers who smiled at the grotesque cartoon vicariously delighting in the ability of precise targeting on geospatial coordinates to target two cities for atomic devastation, without considering the humanity of their civilian inhabitants? Or did it prepare the consumption of the news of the delivery of the payload

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Alberto Uderzo’s Maps

“All Gaul Was Divided into Three Parts . . . “

The cynicism of the Republican party’s attempt to redraw the electoral map of the United States certainly withdraws from reality:  when you’ve lost a big election, just take a few steps back, breathe deeply . . . and re-write the map.  It’s hard to take seriously the attempt–as if gerrymandering wasn’t recent history.  If votes didn’t materialize the first time, just change the rules of the game:  these are only conventions; why not protect the economic homogeneity of the electoral district to get more votes?  We’ve recently obsessed as a nation with questions of boundaries and drawing firm lines in maps, a pursuit which hasn’t got us that far in international affairs, or anywhere worth being.

If drawing boundary lines in the sand or in Ohio are powerful exercises in power, my favorite case of delineating boundaries for readers is from the popular comic, drawn by Uderzo from 1959, each issue of which began from the stark boundaries of an imagined ancient world:  even without consulting Ferdinand Lot’s Les invasions Germaniques:  La pénétration mutuelle du monde barbare et du monde Romain (1945), the identity of Gaul/France was the recurrent theme of Goscinny and Uderzo’s rendering of the adventures of the blond Gaul Asterix and his band of fellow-villagers as they continue to resist Roman invaders to their lands.  Indeed, the Gaulist conceit of the cartoon series plays with the idea of national and linguistic diversity in the ancient Roman world, imagining a past of fixed territories, clear borders, and national aggression that mirrors our own, or mirrored what would be a clearly defined region of Gaul–as if by a modern boundary line–from which a magic potion allows them to undertake the against-all-odds deviance of one city, not yet fallen to the Roman troops, and to preserve their identity even if they are within the Roman empire.

 

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The potent image of Gallic resistance that the comic strip has inspired has spawned theme-parks, stuffed animals, live-action films, and legions–sorry–of admirers, as well as probably having directed the imaginations of more kids to antiquity than any other media.  (So powerful were the connotations of resistance that when Uderzo’s daughter wrote a column for Le Monde in 2009, protesting the sale of the series to the French publisher Hachette Livre, she wrote that it was “as if the gates of the Gaulish village had been thrown open to the Roman Empire,” to give voice to fears that the resourceful cartoon characters discovered in 1959 would be exploited by marketing, as if they would be Disneyfied–a fear Uderzo himself counter-charged was only motivate by greed.

 

 

 

Uderzo’s now-iconic “Map of Gaul” introduces every one of Asterix’s adventures.  But the map becomes a them of a relatively early book in the multi-volume collections that is un-coincidentally entitled Asterix and the Goths.  On the comic book’s cover, the imaginary boundary line that bound Gaul/France was concretized for readers of the strip, as the boundary line between became the stage for action:  Uderzo marked a dashed line (familiar from road maps or national atlases) on the ground, to essentialize differences between France and Germany, if not intentionally to mask how the historical determination was actually more fluid than Uderzo rendered the boundary line between Gaul and Germania for readers, but which the wily Francs were about to invade, even if that meant leaving the flagstones that Roman conquerors had used to pave roads in Gaul.

 

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Border to Germania

 

Historical accuracy or verisimilitude wasn’t exactly the point for the authors or readers of Asterix.  But celebrating a mythistory very much was:  much as our hero stands for the defense of Gaul against the invading Roman Empire, the looming shadows of the helmeted Goths in this image echo the Bismarck-style helmet that date from World War I, and cause our hero to turn his attention from the Roman legions that Obelix stands posed to clobber, reaching for the sword to face a new enemy.  After all, the colors of the map are evident in the land that he defends:  Gaul is green; Germania yellow.  The border marking is clear, and the border sign notes the different fonts used in each land just as the Germans speak in Gothic letters in the speech bubbles in this comic book.

Demarcating regional boundaries was of course not so much a reality for the ancient world, or migratory Goths, as they are in historical reconstructions.  But the comic essentialized France by the gallantry and derring-do of its Gallic ancestors–as the counter-weight and barbaric other of the Goths to the east.  In each adventure, Gallic wiles defied the formal boundaries displayed in the frontispiece in Uderzo’s map of Gaul’s division into three parts in they year 50 BC, where all of Gual is indeed divided, . . . save one town that holds out to the north in Caesar’s time . . .

 

Gaul 50 BC.png

The regional divisions of Gaul are pseudo-scholarly, if not antiquarian, and the joke of the towns that are revealed, surrounded by Roman camps, by the magnifying glass, is matched nicely by the cracks of the earth caused by the cracks in the Gallic landscape, as if by an earthquake, caused by the aggressive planting of the Roman standard in the south of France, casting more than a shadow over the region’s fertile plains.

There was a something of a tradition of an imagined creation of boundary-lines in Renaissance editions of Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, to be sure, that is echoed in Uderzo’s clever cartographical cartoon.  The insertion of such boundary lines into the landscape is  reflected the increased national segregation of regions in Renaissance maps and national atlases.  They paralleled, to be sure, the fantasy among Germans that the region Tacitus described to the Romans in his Germania revealed the antiquity of the Germanic people.  National maps were popular in France from regional maps from 1550, or the national atlases of Bougereau and others, and commissioned by the monarchy–even if they were far less colorful than Uderzo’s cartoons.

 

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The notion of the invasions of Goths in a later date was rendered as a cartographical violation of French territory in the great medieval philologist and demographer Ferdinand Lot’s 1935 Les invasions germaniques, an erudite study republished in two years as Les invasions barbares, a work whose cover oriented the work around its central subject–France, in the guise of Francs–despite Lot’s positivistic evaluation of historical evidence.

 

 

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A subsequent edition of the map was noticeably far more reticent:

 

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But let’s go back to the comic books.  Uderzo’s boundary line in the two-color Asterix map is an actual sequence of dashes, thick dashes, beside a marker which seems to have been drawn in the Gaulish/Roman side–Gaul is predominantly indicated in the sign, and, betraying the question of who wrote/drew it, the presence of Gaul in the Roman Empire is noted as something of a parenthetical afterthought. This is a boundary line for twentieth-century observers of the map, in ways unavoidable when the first comic was printed in 1959:  Asterix is a national hero who brilliantly and craftily defended, after all, occupied Gaul with ingenuity and help from a magic potion. The region’s bounding is totally unlike the tribal distributions that characterized Europe’s peninsula:

 

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And so it’s not a surprise that maps are always coyly present as a conceit in Asterix, as well as national identities that the Gallic hero visits with or without his local bard, including not only Spain, England, and Rome itself, but even America.  This fantasy of mapping was part of the fun, as well as part of the creative anachronism.  Why were maps such a recurrent part of the comic, save as guides to narrate the Gaul’s worldly adventures?

Asterix was only something of a semi-serious hero who defended the cultural boundaries of occupied Gaul.  But the defense of occupied Gaul was of course a powerful motif in the twentieth century, and the recurrence of maps in the entire series–from the brilliant  frontispiece that begins each book, and is included below, by way of summation–repeatedly employed maps as the perfect stage for Gallic ingenuity and wit.  The man from Gaul had a certain international fame recognized on the covers of later volumes:

 

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Well, that combines a map and aerial view, but seems straight out of a classroom map, if not a Michelin touring guide.  But Asterix and Obelix encountered plenty of signs like that of Paris carefully marked on their travels and itineraries across the ancient landscape that looked suspiciously modern in the iconography of their design:

 

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But the line between Gaul and Germania, or the land of the Goths, is the on-the-ground view of the clear demarcation that existed in the minds of all the Gauls at that time, runs the conceit of the comic book, or, er . . . all except in one town.

 

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Such is the beauty of maps, and their power as iconic images.  It’s not surprising that such resistance was shown when  Uderzo, who had worked so lovingly and hard to create these characters got slammed in the national press in 2009 by his own daughter for planning to sell the franchise after his own death as betraying a national hero to “the modern-day Romans–the men of finance and industry.”  Uderzo eventually appointed his own assistants to continue Asterix’s adventures.

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