Tag Archives: Denis Wood

Hearing Through Maps: Mapping London’s Hidden Waterways

We see through maps, Denis Wood has argued, to find the “human landscape” that lies superimposed upon the land, and uncover the ways that the landscape has been changed–and how we can orient ourselves to those changes–based on the “huge arrogance” that “we can name and we can claim.”  Maps demand to be interpreted, and the task of their interpretation largely lies in uncovering how maps invite us to “see through them,” to explore the landscapes that lie underneath the layer of words that lies on their beckoning surfaces.  To take stock of how maps work by asking us to go about imagining the landscape that lies beneath those words is a way of uncovering their arguments about territories.

The linked map invites readers to explore its surface, in web-based maps of the London Sound Survey by using links to explore soundscapes that would otherwise lurk beneath cellulose surfaces.  Web-based maps such as Sound Survey of London’s waterways offer modes of remapping the known environment of the city:  and the choice to map the riverine network that is rarely seen in London by the conventions of Harry Beck‘s almost universally recognized diagram of its Underground.  The image offers an apt way to invite viewers to excavate audible aspects of the city absent from a drawn map:  if Beck’s map sanitized the subways in streamlined fashion to attract Londoners to the Underground, readers are asked to explore the waterways that emerge only in its parks, bridges, and channels linked to watery paths which we rarely see which run under and about its surface before they enter the central artery of the Thames.  Rather than by mapping the  city’s space in reference to its individual  streets or intersections, but by placing the rivers of the Survey maps waterways’ sounds in ways that recuperate their perhaps forgotten presence.  Wood remapped the lived community of Boylan Heights so that is not only as a place in Raleigh, North Carolina, but charting the “metabolism” of the community in maps of the light street lamps cast, lit jack o’ lanterns placed on porches at Halloween, paper routes Wood ran with a tightly knit cohort in his youth, or “squirrel highways” of aerial wires, which collectively serve to unpack the often invisible ways of “how it works.”


Halloween in Boylston Heights


One might compare to this set of maps the ways in which maps in the London Sound Survey invites readers to enter an overpowering pointillist accumulation of local details, and similarly serve to map a setting in which everything sings–or at least we can enter its audible surface at distinct points.

The question of what axes indices and axes might be adopted to best orient readers to the ways that the place works are ingeniously organized by the Sound Survey through the colored lines and stops of the transit map that Harry Beck proposed for London’s Underground in 1931, a network-map whose revolutionary simplicity seems to have been devised when the draftsman in its Signal Office, Beck adopted paths of circuits to map the intersecting pathways of the Underground at a time when the city needed to encourage less traffic in its streets:  the powerful success of Beck’s map shifted Londoners’ attitudes to urban space.   A rewritten version of the familiar iconic network of the London Underground appropriately provides the syntax to uncover the hidden network of non-tidal streams, brooks, creeks, pools and channels that run, partly exposed, partly underground, around the river Thames.  Territories are less the question in the map of London’s waterways, which progress from trickling streams to waves slapping against the locks of the Thames.

Soundmap after Beck

London Sound Survey, Waterways 

The result is to conjure not a mythical, lost London, as did James Shepherd Scott’s 1884 History of London, a work concerned to show “the origin and growth of the present condition of the suburbs” of what was the “largest city of the world,” but which began with the tabula rasa of “London Before the Houses”–with two streets running about marshy region in a network of rivers–but to remind us of a watery network that still lives under the city’s paved streets–even though it also echoes Scott’s illustration in recreating a London that is now lost to the senses for most readers.




If Scott’s map served as the frontispiece for a volume that described the city whose growth has been “very rapid in modern times,” and “an ever-widening tract of country covered by the buildings of a city already so large that it is equalled by no other in the world” (1), the cosmopolitan metropolis is excavated in the map of the London Sound Survey.  While Scott mused that “as the houses advance, the natural features are obliterated,” and, at the conclusion to his list of changes, “the brooks no longer run” (2), the survival of the brooks and streams as vital parts of a living landscape are documented in the qualitatively detailed survey’s sounds.

In charting paths of the waterways hidden even to London’s own inhabitants, the sound map is especially successful in charting the dissonance between the forms of symbolization and lived experience–and by doing so through the conventions we immediately recognize as indicating London.  While imitating or offering a cartographical homage to the Underground map, the surface of the map is punctuated with sonorous glimpses of the lived space of London today–offering actual stops where we can pause to hear a sound file of a minute or so of the water that trickles between it can be heard from the surface, in evanescent moments the symbology of the map cannot hope to record created by rivers, feeder streams or brooks, and canals.  Each “stop” is an observation station–to perceive or note the gurgling of a brook over a weir near Wimbledon or follow the course of the Brent through a culvert and along a viaduct, beside ambient noise of work, honking geese, and quacking ducks.  That the rivers don’t exist makes the map a recuperation of how London lives beside the water today, and to attune oneself to its changing  environment in which the tributaries of the Thames are more often trickles than rapidly flowing streams.  While dismembering Beck’s circuitry, the paths of rivers, streams, and waterways that flow into the Thames are something of a melancholy look at a world we have lost, but also a snapshot of their survival in an urbanized environment.

The cartographical poetics of the Sound Survey map are immediately recognizable.  By adapting the iconic conventions Harry Beck pioneered in his immensely popular modernist mapping of the circuits of metropolitan transit in his 1931 Underground map, the map needs no identification of where it is–London–and provides something of a counterfact of an image that today is separable from the city, despite its considerable influence as a model of mapping transit networks.  The map’s almost-universal influence on how metros are mapped in urban landscapes has not altered the distinctive iconography of the Underground map:  its conventions establish a quite different perspective than orienting readers to its built underground, however, as it used similar streamlined conventions and colored lines to trace the paths water takes in London’s built environment.  The conventions invite readers to explore the topography of where water rises to the surface of the urban space:  by clicking at the site of any “stop,” to link to audio clips along the indicated waterway, marked, as trains, by curving colored lines almost identical Beck used to diagram the city’s Underground–yet rather than create a unified network, they trace currents that flow into the Thames–the river that runs through London, and sole point of external reference in Beck’s now-classic modernist map of the London Underground.

Ian Rawes has long recorded London sounds to preserve its sensorial world; the map of waterways allows us to enter aural environments at parts of the city by a smattering of precise sensations of water passes whose collective accumulation overcomes its readers:  while mapped as if a site of imaginary metropolitan stops, the stops are in fact spots where waterways aside from the Thames are audible to city-dwellers, as if to synthesize insider’s knowledge how the urban space overlays an unseen web of currents, exposing them in a map as Beck foregrounded the space of transit lines to orient urban travellers.


underground_map_beckHarry Beck’s original map of the London Underground (1936 version)

In the London Sound Survey map of urban waterways, each site places us at an observation station that allow us to revisit formerly overlooked spaces in the city, rarely mapped, and to allow its users to hear sounds of a watery web which one might have earlier recognized.  Each appears evanescent moments at scattered sites in the city, but reveals, as a sort of historical base-line, the levels at which water flows through multiple sites in the built environment.   Ian Rawes included over 1,500 discrete recordings in the London Sound Survey but in plotting the courses of the audibility of otherwise-hidden waterways plots, the Survey organized what seem curiously subjective perspectives to map what can be heard at different sites in the space of a single map of the hidden streams that run through the metropolis; the act of apprehending the submerged underground network is pleasantly reorienting, focussing our attention on where they reappear and intersect with birdsong, dripping waters, passing individuals, or local sounds of construction and transport in the city:  the discrete sites assemble, collectively, both a map and an aural environment that most maps)cannot capture.  Each discrete sound seems impermanent, but  also suggests, collectively, the ways water briefly reappear in a built environment, as rivers, streams, and canals enter lived life in ways not detectable on an actual map. At each “stop,” we enter an observation-station where Rawes recorded the ambient sounds around waterways.

1.  The resulting mapping of the soundscape of London’s waterways offers a multiple points of entrances to soundscapes outside the city’s built environment. The permanence of the pathways of canals, rivers, and underground waterways rightly map of the sounds of the system of waterways as intersections with a riverine underground.   Explicitly designed as an “auditory tribute” or homage to the circuit-like color-coded design of Harry Beck’s modernist map which clarified complex pathways of the tube for commuters earlier only “about as legible as a bowl of spaghetti” for its riders.  Beck’s draftsmanship elegantly schematized the pathways of London’s Underground to allow their legibility in an icon not only of urban transit but accessibility, but of the city itself:  at a time when the city’s subway had become so geographically far-flung to be a challenge to condense to a legible fashion, the map effectively persuaded commuters of the ease of navigating its totality, while living in its suburbs, by mapping the pathways of its trains by angles at increments of forty-five degrees to increase their legibility, and foregrounding its interchanges.

Ian Rawes cleverly adopted the diagram first designed to promote a readily legible record of commuter rail, by straightening out their course and contracting the distances at regular intervals to allow aural access to sound files through a web-based interfaces.   Whereas Beck’s intent was to expand the utility needed in a transit map for audiences in ways that riders to navigate its multiple lines that was readily appreciated by riders, Rawes’ map is an opportunity for noticing the overlooked, and invite them to follow the paths with which waterways intersect with other lived environments.  The cooing of pigeons and drips of water under the Greenway bridge at “Channelsea” off the Lea complements the hum of traffic overhead, as if an epiphany of the evanescent; the passing train near the Roding at “Alders Brook” suggests a moment watching passing urban traffic on a viaduct, as the trickle of water at “Paddington Basin”–not Paddington Station–almost concealed by the loud whirr of air-conditioning units and an intermittent power-saw from a nearby construction site.  The Brent flows under the observation station “Greenford Bridge” pierced by the referee’s whistle at an amateur football game mixed with players’ cries.  The registration of lived experience sets something of a watermark on the sounds of London circa 2012.

The physical expanse of Rawes’ aural map is an a propos homage Beck’s diagram.  The soundscape map reveals the similar permanence of overlooked waterways that link to the Thames.  By collating short sound-files at points where they emerge from the built environment, preserving a uniquely personal reaction to place of the sort that often eludes city maps.  Where Beck preserved a mental image of the sites at which access to the London Underground was permitted, at a user’s click, a range of ambient sounds peek through the observation points noted by the stubs with which Beck rendered Underground “stops” in his iconic map.  Beck’s map was immediately popular among commuters as a way to re-render the urban space.  It has since gained such sustained popularity as a model for similar subway systems–it encouraged urban expansion in Sydney (just eight years later) and encouraged Beck to submit maps for other cities’ transport systems in future years.  Indeed, the image has become so a successful a symbolic rendering of London’s space for its conventions of colored lines and combining of circular hubs of interesecting lines with stubby stops to orient access to London’s underground.  By using the streamlined circuit-like conventions by which Beck had oriented riders to the expanding Underground and navigate their commutes, Rawes recuperated the lost sounds of the city’s waterways as if to remind readers of the distance at which they stand from them.

The Underground map was, of course, famous as a remapping of urban space, as much as an icon of London.  The diagram placed stations at a remove from actual distances or locations, but replaced an image of the actual geographical relations in the city by highlighting their routes on clearly colored paths that run in uniform lines  to prominently render interchange stations, filtering out any reference to the city’s physical topography save a quite schematic rendering of the Thames; the image was quickly affixed to every station on account of its highly readable ways by which it oriented city-dwellers and allowed them to gauge the crucial question of the number of stops–rather than the actual distances–to their destinations. If Beck’s map collapsed space, the map of waterways orients readers to the transit that water took across its expanse, in ways that seem irrelevant to spatial geography.  Beck straightened the river’s course in the name of clarity in his diagram, in line with the straightening of trains’ routes for readers to allow them to better visualize routes of travel and the exchanges they would need to make.

Such is the conceptual clarity and considerable staying power of Beck’s diagram to navigate London’s underground makes it in fact quite difficult to view the actual pathways taken by Underground trains–yet Beck’s system of reference remains so powerful a symbolic form to conceptualize London’s Underground that it is disorienting to be presented with the actual courses train lines truly take in the city.  As a symbolic form of what Rudolf Arnheim called “visual thinking,” the diagram encouraged Londoners to take to the Underground as a way to navigate their commutes or daily travels with such success that an actual groundplan of the interface between the individual lines and the city’s space seems disorienting in how it reveals the meandering pathways that train lines actually take, the actual sinuous curves of the Thames, and the apparent failure of trains to turn at increments of 45° along their true courses.


Beck's lines mapped on London

We are far more ready to map the familiar transit lines displayed in a reference key and shown in the maps by pronounced paths of colors, as a network that existed as if autonomously from the city, to better find what he called its interchange stations.  The notion that the network was made up of discrete lines proved immensely influential in all later transit maps.

REferenceBeck’s Original Reference Key (1931)

For Beck’s crucial insight of simplifying the courses of trains by mapping subway lines in increments of forty-five degrees allowed riders to imagine the paths of trains as a network independent from the street map. It has been expanded, accommodating the multiplication of transit lines reflecting the city’s explosion:


Beck’s streamlined routes of the diagram offered Rawes a quite fitting medium to map each waterway’s aural settings at observation points.  Each “station” presented readers with a chance to look under the map to hear the sounds that peer out from it, at a click:  linked sound files map unmapped–and perhaps often forgotten–waterways from the River Lea, Wandel, Roding, the New River, Brent to Beverly Brook.   Rawes’ legend link multiple listening stations, linked on a similar spectrum of color-coded lines to orient viewers, even if each sound-file disperses one’s attention to the city’s surface in way that are wonderfully unlike the fixity of Beck’s coherent system–the map individuates specific points where readers can descends to join not the Underground lines, but watery courses below an inhabited surface.  Each waterway is assigned a uniquely colored path that approximates the hues of the current Underground, and are given the names of the actual waterway, transposing the natural and the man-made.

legend of rivers in mapLondon Sound Survey, Waterways (Legend)

Beck’s diagrammatic streamlining of the Tubelines provided an apt set of conventions quickly identified with underground transit routes of built conveyances.  He used them to chart hidden points at which the constellation of urban waterways intersect with the city’s lived environment.  The resulting soundscape map situated the emergence of waterways in the city.  The result is to suggest the points at which an otherwise hidden network of waterways reveal themselves in the soundscapes of docks, bridges, marshes, creeks, reservoirs and parks that we so often consider the built city to have replaced.

Pushing this avenue of investigation, Rawes invites readers to revisit and investigate a hidden network of waterways running under the city that are hidden from the familiar map’s surface.  In a metageographical terms, Rawes’ sound-map acts as a comment on the folly of conveying an actual level of continuity to the quite specific sites where water appears to be heard, and the relation of the transit of water in the city to the historically built means of transit–from traffic to the sounds of footsteps, joggers, walkers, the drone of airplanes, industry, or as well as ambient birdsong–and allow the unique poetics of an imaginary landscape to emerge that results from the situation of London’s actual hidden waterways.  To be sure, the role of the cartographer is as a disinterested observer–Rawes preserved this role, it seems–but offers archivally dated sound files of each place that the reader can savor in one-minute clips.


2.  The river, of course, runs through it.  The London Sound Survey of Waterways present a palimpsest of urban topography.  The location of the individual urban soundscapes offer a counter-map to urban space, exploiting the ways in which online maps invite us to go beyond this reading of the imaginary in an eery way.  By linking the mapped space of the city in an almost joyously synesthetic fashion with urban sounds, the sound survey of London’s waterways provides a way of tracking urban experiences around is hidden waterways, suddenly bringing them to the surface from the very tools of mapping London that are perhaps the best known.  By inventively embedding sound clips of tickling rivers, birdsong, traffic, droning of substations, cries of gulls or terns, trains, and even boats on the Thames, we see the city in new ways that recreate a map with an almost subjective intensity that is almost always inherently absent from a map’s face. Suddenly–unlike the original–we find the waterways of the inhabited city peeking into the stylized format of Beck’s transit map, as the submerged riverine paths are given a prominence most dwellers of the city ignore.

Beck’s diagram of the Underground intentionally abandons scale or correct proportions for regularity and apparently straight lines in his own schematic rendering of waterways.  Beck’s aim was to produce a quite stylized format to grasp facilitate urban communication and both plan and recognize routes of commutes.  The immediate success of Beck’s formal innovation of how to mediate he underground to its passengers of course now offers not only an icon of London, but served to helpfully map the city’s physical space, even while the diagram sacrificed exact spatial correspondence or measurements:  indeed, many visitors to London are regularly reminded to disregard the plain distortion of the Underground map, much as visitors to New York may need to be reminded that the walking distance between apparently nearby stops is greater than the map implied.  Beck diagrammed the Underground as a record of routes of transit not corresponding to their spatial organization.  Rawes invested similar regularity to the waterways that fed the River Thames, which he gives a prominence in his map, to which each of the waterways linked, though few have commerce with one another:  if Beck streamlined the Underground lines, Rawes “Beck-ified” London’s waterways to better distinguish a network of streams hidden from public view and register their sounds, often overwhelmed by ambient noise.

In appropriating the conventions Beck pioneered for London’s Underground, the course of the city’s hidden but barely heard waterways are mapped to suggest the hidden streams running under the city, and bodies of water from canals to brooks to rivers with which the city’s inhabitants rarely recognize.  Rather than orienting viewers to the course of London’s rails, the map tracks waterways and reservoirs–the natural life and urban life–over which were built roads and buildings and the tube itself–and reducing the Thames to something like a mere geographical marker.  The sounds of the city, not only of its inhabitants, is meant by Ian Rawes to offer something of a more accurately embodied record than a map could offer in words and drawing, or might otherwise go overlooked.  (Despite the clearly modernist–almost futurist–rationality of Beck’s diagram, its circuit-like nature is notably less evident in the 1931 map Beck designed, which gives less prominence to a Circle Line, because it was primarily intended to carry folks to the city’s centers from outlying regions.)

London-Underground-Maps-009Harry Beck’s 1931 “Underground Map,” courtesy London Transit Museum


Beck’s diagram of the Underground nicely lends its recognizable structure to tracking the submerged waters of the rivers in ways that one can explore their relation to city sounds.  Sounds are removed from the graphic purity of Beck’s modernist design.  A barely concealed aspect of Rawes’ homage to the draughtsman who designed the Tube Map is no doubt that Beck symbolized the Thames to appear innocuous in the Underground map–orienting viewers to the paths of rail-lines of commute that link London’s previously quite discrete neighborhoods, but which echoes the apparent straightness and gently curved lines of laid track, and, reduced to a  light blue abstraction, recedes into the visual background of the mapped field and is, in fact, no longer an obstruction to movement. In Beck’s map, the Thames’ pale blue almost sinuous curves are only as a sign of spatial reference.  In sharp contrast, the River Thames is ever-present as one approaches at different basins or boatyards, the irregularity of the canals and lesser rivers are shown as similarly stylized lines on which the viewer can use to click at a range of sites–rather than stops–to find a range of epiphanies manqués that underscore the incompleteness and selectivity of the map–or any map at all.

In the Sound Survey of London’s waterways, the ways that Beck translated the network to terms passengers might best negotiate relinquished geographic accuracy, but became a basis to negotiate the city’s geography:   the presentation of the clickable map of urban soundscapes of water offers a counter-map of the city, and allows the online viewer to indulge in the multiple dimensions of the natural settings in which the track of the city’s Underground was built–and the sites of confluence of natural and man-made in today’s city.  If Beck’s image was quickly affixed to every station as a shared model for orienting city-dwellers to trace their paths of commute, the success 1931 printed map provided a framework whose popularity has endured, because of its remove from the city’s lived landscape, its interchange stations set against a blank white background to ensure its greater legibility by commuters.  There is something truly telling in that the map was commissioned to reduce the intolerable and untenable density of foot-traffic on London’s streets.

underground_map_beckVictoria and Albert Museum, “Underground Map” (1936)

3.  The sounds on which one click fill the diagram of waterways with an immediacy unfamiliar to maps.  In way that transforms viewers’ relation to the city, Rawes’ counter-map re-purposes the stylized simplicity of the lines of transit to show the proximity of the waters to urban settings:   the map focusses on waterways relegated outside the underground in Beck’s diagram.  The insight of preparing a set of lines that oriented viewers to how lines link to one another–more than the urban streets above–to suggest the autonomy of the system into which Londoners’ entered, as limiting the lines of rail to angles of forty-five degree increments, indeed oddly naturalized the streams that commuters would ride along and across the Thames:  Rawes organized his record soundscapes on rivers that followed as they entered its path.

The urban observation points, if rendered by Beck’s symbolic conventions, offer a distinct system to orient oneself to the map’s surface–in far less pointedly utilitarian ways.  While Beck’s map presented cues by which the train-passenger can orient themselves to the landscape of London in tacit fashion, in order to better orient themselves to its non-exact spatial scale, the city is absent from the diagram.  One function of the map is to place oneself in a close proximity to the water–on bridges, by viaducts, on a quay, by a lock–that can rarely, if ever, be recreated in a static map or web-based map, as well as to a complexly variegated aural environment of birdsong, workmen, planes,  and passersby.  Viewers of the London Sound Survey can be immediately transported, by one click, to relate to the city’s space in distinctly news ways–and a wonderfully synesthetic manner that few maps are able to offer, inviting a perceptual world into the map that defies its oculocentric organization as a surface that is only scanned.

By clicking at a toponymy quite unlike that of Beck’s classic map, one enters a sonorous site whose power almost asks one to resist the city as a cohesive collective and focus on moments of the transcendent.  For we are struck by a barrage of closely observed sense-based observations, on a gamut of individual sounds cumulatively overwhelming as site-specific perceptions of London’s canals, rivers and streams so as to reveal a “sweet inland murmur” that echoes the revelatory manner that the Romantic poet William Wordsworth evoked, while returning to its banks of the River Wye that he had often remembered as “a landscape to a blind man’s eye.”  Wordsworth’s elegant formulation of the sense of transport as he stood “by the sides/ of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams” led him to apostrophize the “sylvan Wye,” whose sounds seem a form of local transcendence, as a place of blending perception and creation–a pastoral whose “tranquil restoration” lies not only in the perception of waters “rolling from their mountain springs,” but a recognition how at their sound “the picture of the mind revives again.”  Could a map offer similar restoration?

One does not perhaps feel the same ecstasy sort of transport Wordsworth had described at each minute of sound, but all transport us to another place, and to conjure the flow of water beneath the map.  Each station force one to sort out the flood of discrete sense-based perceptions that one registers with immediacy;  Wordsworth described being overcome by the sublime of “sensations sweet,/Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart” in Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey (1798).  The sensations its sounds and sights provoked he knew well, were re-felt as he saw it again as if for the first time.  Although few observation stations in contemporary London offered the opportunity to “hear the mighty waters rolling evermore,” individual “observation stations” offer points of ingress to hone in on places absent from Beck’s map, to access a similar “sweet inland murmur” of waterways and city sounds.  In an age of global warming and the recession of ocean waters, and when the water levels of major rivers have dropped worldwide, it is not that one arrives at a redemptive sublime beneath the map of Wordworthian proportions by listening to the sounds of London’s waterways, or takes stock of being newly attuned to one’s past memories of a sight and placebut that the lived city appears, through the sounds, to one’s mind.

As the names of pseudo-stations in the Sound Survey’s version of Beck’s map provide names linking to Rawes’ sound files, auditory perception is linked to place through the magic of the map in ways that seem a sort of local sublime.  Clicking on stations not only orient readers to place, but transport readers to a mental image of a glimpsed landscape, if in pointillist fashion:  each offers a revelation of the traces of the waterways that fed the Thames or canalized water in the city.  The salient waterways and canals are suddenly made evident, and able to be traced, below what we usually consider the city’s physical plant.  And as the reader encounters equivalents of the “sad music of humanity,” the cries of adults and footsteps of passersby, moving both in and out of the water that flows around the city and birdsong about its canals, rivers and streams:   the “stations” conjure the sounds urban inhabitants might have once recognized, navigating its rivers as they run through and reappear in parks, channels, reservoirs and zoos.

The poetics of the soundscape map seems truly Wordsworthian:  the click of a cursor offers readers the opportunity to revisit the city’s waters, and by revisiting the sonority of settings around the city take stock of their changing relation with its actual environment, but create images of place in the mind’s eye.  While the relatively rapid adoption of the iconography of the “Underground Map” situated rail-riders in London in ways that rapidly habituated them to a new understanding of its expanse, the sounds of waterways access a hidden set of sensations London.  One hears the ducks and gulls that circle above the West Reservoir in North London with a chill, as the roar of traffic recedes, listens to the overlooked but immediately recognizable appearances of sounds of water and nature in the built city.  (The textual descriptors that appear after clicking on each “stop” catalogue the impressions, but cannot fail to capture their experience.  The sounds of coots chasing one another at “Welsh Harp” suggest that Beck’s map, and the project of cartographical modernity, has been directing our attention to the wrong things all the time.)  When one clicks on the sound survey of urban estuaries, rendered at points as if rail stations or stops on the underground, lived moments pierce through the familiar symbolic surface of the map, as lived experience breaks through it surface, as if the offered points of entry ways to an underground station; a click transports one beneath the map, in ways that seem to break through the symbolic surface in ways that remind us of the distance between mapping and the aural environments the mapmakers recorded.  The ecstasies of “dizzy rapture” calls our attention to the often unnoticed flow of waters about the built city, and aural particulars of the environment that escape almost all maps, as “every common sight” delivered seems chanced upon, and as a moment “present pleasure” “upon the banks/Of this fair river” was recast as actually “Apparell’d in celestial light.”


wye-valley-hills-wide-1600x900River Wye


The intense barrage of imagery Wordsworth’s 1798 poem is evoked in the sound map Rawes designed in 2012.  For the density of detail in Rawes’ recordings suggest the illusion of rendering continuity in a map–and preserves the immediacy of the reality that lies beneath any map.  The counter-symbolization of London’s cityscape in the sound map offers inverts the near-absence of the Thames in Beck’s map, altering the streamlined simplicity of the Tube Map’s circuitry, as it dismembers the circular pathways of interlinked trains to a web of discretely noted rivers and waterways, and suggesting the irregularity of the river’s bends.  Rather than marginalize the Thames as the sole route of water, a wide strip of a set of parallel blue lines, almost external to the mapped system of metro lines, waterways are indeed the system mapped for the London Sound Survey of waterways, Beck’s iconography, tongue-in-cheek, as a way to trace waterways that expand from the Thames as they reveal its feeders:

Soundmap after Beck


The pathways taken by water in London are rendered by the standardized conventions to order the aural environments of the birdsong, bubbling brooks, or the dripping water in London’s creeks and minor rivers effectively pierce the smooth and streamlined diagram of Beck’s modernist circuit-like symbolization of the Underground.  They allow us to engage with the sound world that Beck’s map intentionally omits:  one hears rushing water of the River Lea at “Pickett’s Dock”; faint cries of seagulls at “Camden”, before a train intrudes as it enters Euston Station (not on the map); bird song that arrives from the aviary of the “London Zoo”, with a magpie chattering, adult coots heard in the Reservoir at “Welsh Harp”; “Paddington Basin” (not station) is dominated by the sounds of air conditioning units and powersaws–and puts the sound of trains, traffic, footsteps, human cries, or construction that are heard in the background, as if intruding into a sound environment, as well as being part of it, allowing one to imagine a landscape peeling away layers of history with insouciance for viewers lucky enough to click there.  At a click, an aural experience of the lived world of the city emerges from the map as if leaks out of the surface that Beck’s iconography leaks out from the map’s surface.  Each small sound clip transports one to a sense of place that unfolds in one’s imagination with a physical clarity that is altogether absent–and indeed banished–from Beck’s more utilitarian (and sterile) transit map.  The sound clips transport one to specific sites, rather than allow an infinite number of itineraries to be traced by multiple users, but allow one to explore the city’s aural dimension through a visually and symbolically similar map.

The map invests discrete moments of specifically noted times with new meaning as a collection–and suggest less of an inhabited city than ambient sounds most city-dwellers in London be apt to neglect, which would undoubtedly never be noticed if they had not been recorded.  Indeed, the transient sounds of a world filled with water offer a sense of tactile contact with the place described, through a map, that at the same time, unlike a map, suggest the evanescent nature of place, and its fragile beauty.  At this point, the map is a map, but it is also a portrait more intensely immediate than any map can be:  in the medium of the internet, the immediacy of this map lies in its non-visible parts, which take one down passageways unable to be depicted on paper.  Once one gets rid of the cellulose embrace the interface, the flimsiness of the static designation of place–even the not so well-known places in the Sound Map of London’s Waterways.  As Mutton Brook flows nearby “Hampstead Gardens”, one seems to be knowing the place with a far more acute immediacy than any name could offer.  As one clicks the map, the sounds recorded on specific dates acquire a timelessness.  And one experiences, after repeated clicks, an eery impression that the selected sounds seem chosen so randomly to make one aware of the omission of any information in a map–and the mechanized nature of the possibilities of interaction that the map offers.  This argument may press the notion of the poetics of cartography to a further degree than the London Sound Survey intended, but it hardly seems a coincidence.

In listening to these sounds, one can suddenly recuperate the ambient sounds that stand at odds with the overwhelming aural experience of the underground, long a deafening roar and clang-and-clatter.  We listen, in a focussed and almost Zen fashion, to the rasping of grasshoppers, magnified to be louder than surrounding traffic, at “Tottenham Marshes”, or the birdsong, playing children, and barking dog at “Palmers Green”:   seemingly evanescent local sounds are recuperated, as it were, and offer an entry place to creating an image of each site.  If they seem in constant tension with the totality of the city, showing the foolhardy nature of any hope of truly comprehending a synthesis of the city’s variegated landscape as a continuous expanse, they allow access to meaningful overlays of sound in specific sites.  If reduced to a set of poetic fragments, the city is not only uncomfortably dismantled in the map, reduced to a set of recordings, but the recordings register changing degrees in the presence of water in the built environment and allow us to discover the waterways concealed in most maps.  Through them, we discover space by a completely new toponymy than that which usually appears on maps to better create them by the mind’s eye:  the result is something like a meditation on the poetics of cartographical creation that Wordsworth might have admired, or at least recognized, as a lover of “the mighty world/ Of eye and ear, both what they half-create,/ And what perceive.”

Dual functions of sense-perception embedded in the London Sound Survey of Waterways cannot fail to appeal to the mind’s eye:


Life falls out of the map, in purely auditory form, and map a gap between the map as construction and the lived cityscape.  The minute-long intervals of cascading of water one encounters as one walks beside the Wandle in South London, coots in North London, the Ravensbourne at “Bromley Common”, the faint roar of the Roding at “Woodford”, River Beam at “The Chase”, the trickle of the pools at “Lower Sydenham”, punctuate the monotony of the static form of a printed map, and indeed dramatically shift our perceptions of space:  we hear a car moving, hear voices of adults or children in the background, but these glimpses of the day-to-day offer a sense of the stability of the experiential, in ways that few paper maps can ever do.  We are not actors who determine this environment, than we are passing through it to appreciate it.  Its given names were assigned by humans, but those names, for a moment, actually seem completely beside the point.

1 Comment

Filed under environmental mapping, London, London Sound Survey, London Underground, Sound Studies, Soundscapes

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

The Map is Dead–Long Live the Map!

Participants at the symposium Mapping and Its Discontents debated the benefits of the near-ubiquity of uniform mapping systems sponsored and orchestrated by Google in our lives.  Many of the wonderful papers tried to suggest the benefits that mapping served as alternate ways of making visible the unseen and giving voice to the silenced–but did so with deep skepticism of the dominance of Google Map’s blandly undifferentiated surface, both as a sort of collective erasure of knowledge, and a sinister synthesis of gathering meaning about individuals’ consumption habits.  In this somewhat hopeful symposium, whose speakers urged the audience to go forth and map, Denis Wood offered a skeptical history of mapping as a form of art, focussing less on its craft than on the contexts in which it was read and exchanged–and the historical “explosions” of map making as a tool of state-making.

Although Scott McCloud does trace comics back through cave paintings and the Bayeux tapestry, something we recognize as a comic book it to printing and mass-production of paper in the mid-nineteenth century, the printed ephemera Alan Aldridge and George Perry first identified as antecedents to  the sort of fantastic album art he produced, we don’t see much we would recognize as a map until printing, Wood argues–and that the fifteenth century is a good place to start the history of maps.  But rather than peg the map to the material practices of the production of information, the ways of embodying information and need to embody networks of spatial organization reflect the new need of an emerging modern nation-state–as well, he might add, though he omitted it yesterday, the need to straighten out clear bounds of contact and digest the discovery of new worlds.  (One might object that rather than leave this entity of the “state” so monolithic, dual origins of causation can be seen in the Renaissance, both as a period of contact with new worlds and that gave currency to the creation of newly imagined worlds–the “other Green world” of Harry Berger–as joint ground in the poetics of making, reading, and reproducing the map.)

As longtime interrogator of the power of maps and enfant terrible of the cartographical establishment, Wood’s opening salvo called attention to how print helped differentiate the standardization of shared practice of mapping space from the genealogy, charter, systems of notation, almanacs, calendars, or rolls, maps served to conjure the state to existence in its graphic performance–and to conjure the state, in ways repeated in histories of Japan, Siam, and the United States, as Elizabeth Berry, Thongchai Winichakul, and Martin Bruckner have shown, as a natural object, when it was not before.  Any attempt to naturalize the map either as a depiction of the world’s surface or universalize its documentary function, he noted, including the celebration of the recent democratization of mapping skills that seem to dislodge authority from the map’s form, passes over the map’s role in the state and state formation as a form of spatial intelligence and spatial intelligibility.

We might do well to look for origins, Wood proffered, by asking exactly when it became a slur on a civilization that it does not use maps–or couldn’t read them.  The question was enticing because of how it raised questions of the ties of map making less as an instrumental tool of dominance over space, than a standard of civilization and knowledge–a standard of the sort that Graham Greene evoked in his postwar visit to Liberia, Journey without Maps (1949).  Although Greene’s visit to the colonial outpost was certainly a product of Africa’s partial colonization by European industry, and the end of English empire, his account reflects Wood’s point that maps exists only where social relations call for them exist:  that where talk serves, maps are rare; but that when talk becomes inadequate, alternative graphic forms of communications develop within the state–of which the map plays a central role.  Greene beautifully if parsimoniously evoked the elderly toothless man with whom he shared a boat ride at the end of his 1946 journey who suddenly approached him with a piece of pressing news:  “‘Do you know that in Monrovia they have a map of the whole of Liberia?  I’m going there to see it.  It is in the possession of a family called Anderson.  They have had it for years,'” he says wonderingly, suggesting amazement at the foreign family of colonizers who possess a map of the entire country in which he lives.  “‘Sinoe is marked on it,'” he continues, “‘and Grand Bassa and Cape Palmas,'” repeating what he has been told by others, but never having seen a map of his entire land.  The encounter might well have been invented by Greene, but created a topos for the encounter between the map-literate and native that presumed an eagerness for encountering a map–the map seems a sort of lodestone–that might be either a western fantasy or a deeper discovery of a land where, absent the myth of colonial organization, the residents don’t know maps, or an illustration of deep ties of mapping to the civilizing process delineated by Norbert Elias.

Printing allowed the map to penetrate the lives of people about 1500, unlike other forms of data-keeping:  for the creation of a map that penetrated the lives of ordinary people and readers effectively under-wrote social relations of power in very concrete, linking territory to other things in ways that advanced the making of maps and shifted the role of mapping as an enterprise:  we count only a few thousand maps prior the growth of the nation, but an explosion of the production of maps in the sixteenth and seventeenth century occurred of the sorts of which was never known, and parallels the map’s entry into individuals’ lives to a degree that never occurred earlier–a notion, as Wood long ago argued, of “map-literacy.”

Nations were indisputably the new arenas of this move to mapping, unlike the printed maps that were widely sold in Italian city-states or the Netherlands.  Earlier maps such as cosmological charts, star maps, or property charts of the Babylonian period or in Japan and England had legal purposes, but quite different from large-scale graphic property function in varied places around the world, and without participating in a map-making tradition in projects such as the mapping efforts of Phillip II to create detailed records of imperial possessions in the Mediterranean, or the huge map making projects of Louis XIV and Colbert that are tied directly to the state and to the material recreation of state sovereignty.  (Of course, this raises the question as to why maps first emerged as forms for advancing epistemic claims and embodying places in areas that were less clear as examples of the modern state, like Italian city-states or sites without empires like the Netherlands or whether the imaginative ends of mapping can be separated from their administrative ends.  Wood sees them as being as tightly tied as the sides of the same Moebius strip.)

It is in this arena of the state, Wood forcefully argued, that we can see the inauguration of modern topographical functions from real estate, to prisons, to cellphone use, to voting practices, to states rights, to a point at which we can’t consider life without maps.  The date 1500, far from being one of convenience, is something like a benchmark or velocity point for the new roles that maps began to play and that they continued to assume today–a point of no return, as it were, of the sort Ian Hacking drew to mark the emergence of probability at the date 1660.  Only after 1500, or in later periods, did mapping emerge as a way of life, Wood insisted:  if some fourteenth-century monks drew plans of their monastery, the idea was not widely or even narrowly pursued as a basis for collating evidence, or followed up on in ways that reflect the multiple functions maps came to assume.  There is a bit of utopianism here:  whereas human societies didn’t need maps, and got on well without them before 1200, he argued, noting rights and properties’ specific attributes in other ways,  the map’s discourse-function failed to develop itself as a means to exploit strategic resources and to have operable use and currency.  While he recognized the evidence of the creation of maps in Song-era China within select parts of well-established bureaucracies, only later did maps gain a large discourse-function of operability.   This may be a bit of a slippery logic, but argues that the “map” had new meaning at a certain point as an object of exchange, and that no properties inherent to its design exist save as such an object of exchange.  So much for its formal attributes.

Wood marked the birth of the map that is now perhaps dead  at this sort of a watershed:  in 1400, few used maps; by 1600, maps became inseparable from social functions in a global context that is itself only beginning to be mapped.  The abundance of eighteenth-century maps in China, or in the seventeenth century in Japan, and in Vietnam from the 15th and 16th century, and Mesoamerican and Malay maps in 16th century, are traditions that inaugurated in the early modern state.  Indeed, there is a weight of evidence to shift this change in the growth of European knowledge, and it reflects a massive rise of needs for map making to ensure border control, water management, land reclamation, military needs that just exploded with the state.  If even in Florence, Italy few maps exist from before 1565, Florentine, Neapolitan and Milanese mapping projects all exploded in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as they did in seventeenth century Japan, when thousands of government maps issue in Japan, and maps served to perform the form of statehood.  

What changed, Wood argues,  was that then new political structure of impersonal construction demanded new forms for its embodiment, and gained a propositional function that was absent from earlier map making traditions–a propositional function that was necessitated and called into creation by the state.  He recalled how Martin Bruckner showed how the image of the national map of the United States staked the proposition that there could be a tenable unity among this expansive nation, much as imperial maps of Britain tried to persuade readers on both sides of continent of imperial possession of north american content, as an artifact of state–both of these cases illustrate the new tangibility that the map assumed as a means of calling the expansive relation of the state into existence by the graphic performance of statehood that was newly enacted in the printed map, and which the map served to make legible.  As Thongchai has shown in his work on Siam, maps served to produce the very “geobodies” that become totemic through the map’s presentation of the state, creating a sense of unity not familiar to many, but able to normatize a nascent polity, and to instruct countless participants in the construction of our country–even without a clear idea of citizenship.  The skill of state apparatus lay in bringing routine of state practices to a larger audience, as Valerie Kivelson argues in Russia, down to a lower level of reading–as the map served, both in Japan and elsewhere, multiple function to against the images of other states and other imaginative constructions.  Identical patterns of map-use can be found in these cultures, and, not surprisingly, in the post-WWII state of Israel, founded in part by European Jews:  in each place, maps affirm the state, the state affirms the map, summoning unity from . . . chaos.

The medium of the map and its power as a form of synthesis arises as a new form of narration when other forms of narrative do not suffice–it is both the master-narrative and originary myth of the modern state.  And, indeed, maps have become so powerful to bring objects into being in concrete terms, that it would be impossible to discuss otherwise in a multitude of ways–from the nation to the distribution of electoral politics to the spread of fires to the ozone hole to El Nino.


Footprints of Actively Burning Fires--Google Map

Ozone Loss Map


The credence that maps create by linking subjects of propositions to a specific code enables these new subjects to be discussed, and in linking subjects of propositions like the state to the code inherent in mapping, and to real relations in the world, maps can come to signify the world, and networks of causation within it, as well as prospective statements for its future.  As Wood wrote in an earlier context, “Insisting that something is there is a powerful way of insisting that something is.  Mapped things–no matter how conceptually daunting–possess such extraordinary credibility because they’re capable of propelling into popular discourse abstruse abstractions:  high-pressure cells, El Nino, seafloor spreading, thermohaline circulation.”  Or global warming, or the the expanding ozone hole, earthquake swarms, or the global threats of desertification of arable land.  These curious abstractions enter public debate as concrete terms, if never clearly grasped, based on their cartographical realization.  It is, of course, only because of maps that these very issues can become contentious foci of public debate.


Tracing Sandy--Time Map

Prognosticating hurricane_sandy_map


The map serves double-duty a representation or a cloak, Wood makes clear.  Its two-fold duties are so effective to make creative practices of map making disappear, to make states affirm their role as real things of nature–even as maps obscured their own existence in the reasons of the state itself.   And if it’s hard to imagine that these artifacts as nations or concepts like ozone could come into creation, without the creative functions of the map, the wonder of the map is to link subjects of proposition signified (State) with signifiers constituted by their code–and to signify the world.  This might explain their clear currency as a form of realizing the make-believe, or fantastic, with a sense of actual concreteness by delineating a credible topography with which we can visually interact–especially while reading a text, and in whose creation we can indeed vicariously share, so powerfully creative do they affect their readers.

The use of maps to lend credence to propositions in the early modern world led them to embody abstractions from the map of “Utopia” Thomas More pointedly included in his dialogue of the same name, the maps of emotions Mme. de Scudery devised as Cartes de Tendre, or Jonathan Swift’s maps of Lilliput and Blefescu or Gunniland in his “proposal for correcting modern maps,” or–and here we leap centuries–modern ancestors such as Stevenson’s Treasure Island, whose fantastic claims to embodiment in maps extend all the way up to map of Middle Earth–and to those Christopher Tolkein subsequently expanded–whose publication and currency, he argued, led anyone with a computer software applications to make maps from Grand Theft Auto to map art, as map is congenial subject of exhibition.

More Utopia Map


Carte de Tendre

But are not these maps playful inversions of the operative roles of maps as tools of state–orchestrated by figures with close state roles, as More and Swift?  The role of middle-range cartographers from E.H. Shepherd to Christopher Tolkein to Jules Feiffer, to trace one genealogy, seems quite distinct.



Is the state’s stranglehold on cartography at last weakening, much as Wood asserts, even with the diffusion of mapping platforms and the availability of digital mapping tools?  Wood detects a twilight of the age of the paper map as leading to an end of the dominant role that maps of states once enjoyed as vehicles to view boundaries and confines of state possession and areas of juridical control.  This does not mean that maps are less used by the state.  But that the map is less the gripping tool of engagement whose history he has traced since circa 1500, the magic date from which maps were, he argued, so instrumental in conjuring the subject of the state and so successful in naturalizing its truth claims as part of our world.  This may be curious, because of the proliferation of digitized maps that defines potentially unwieldy concepts–global warming; the ozone hole; hurricane Sandy’s path; plankton algae bloom distributions–that can be latched onto in public debate and, occasionally, grasped.  Or, on a humanitarian level, the sort of crowd-sourced map of deaths in Syria’s civil wars, legibly tracking a succinct geographic table of the distributions of killings, rapes, revenges, and poisonings or the humanitarian disasters of the Syrian refugees whose number has far surpassed two million.

Crowd-Sourced Mapping of killings, rapes, revenges and poisoning


Syrian Refugee Crisis


We can also distinguish better and worse attempts to map  tragic humanitarian disasters among these visualizations.

One may, indeed, ask what constitutes the state today–and try to map it–or try to define to the widespread distribution of mapping functions within states.  Wood presented the insanely rising prices of old maps sold at auctions today as making something of a mockery of the idea that states so monopolizes the use of maps that it cannot but illustrate state functions.  But are not these maps, now evacuated of meaning and illusions of power, disquietingly assuming a role, retrospectively, as images of a world where power worked differently, or of an age when the design of maps was performed with such due diligence and care?

But Wood is perhaps too happy to say goodbye to the map.  If this grammar is not that much less operative, is it true that the state’s stranglehold on cartography is now weakening or has weakened?  Or that cartography–and the illusion of the map–has outlived its function as a basis to visualize the nation?  Wood doesn’t find that the state can any longer repeat the trick of naturalizing its own presence through the operations of naturalizing with GIS tools, partly because of their lack of similar persuasive skills.  But if it may be argued that the state has no need for the same truth-claims any more, as they are, somehow, finding themselves to be outdated, that doesn’t mean that the collective power of mapping does not exist outside the purview of the state, and as an activity of resistance and calling into being new information, as several other papers delivered at the same conference by Annette Kim and Rebecca Solnit showed.

But although maps arose in needs of nation state to take on form, and organize its interests, rather than seeing some sort of triumphalism continuing in the use of maps to shore up the nation-state, from Raleigh, NC, Wood doesn’t see the map as doing that good a job even as a tool of surveillance.  And he sees the use of maps to call attention to historical practices, and even to restore historical landscapes, as well as address issues of social justice, as marginal to the disappearance of the map as a tool of state control.  The declining efficacy of the sort of operations that maps were able to accomplish, he notes, seem to have contributed–notwithstanding the omnipresence of maps in our lives–to its declining authority, more than a ‘democratization of mapping’ can be celebrated. But as the functions of state-power also seem to be less clearly visualized–and preserved–by means of maps in an increasingly interdependent world where the concept of the boundaries of a map have less meaning as fabricating a category or signifier out of whole cloth, perhaps the map would enjoy new versatility as a tool outside the rubric of the state that so long sponsored it.

If one can talk about a geohumanities that extends beyond those with digital expertise, who engage in studying and producing the culture, that would depend on understanding of ‘map making’ not only as a practice, but as a verb engages other contexts, and a verb that offers something like a grammar in conversation that is specific to the map as an object, distinct from other accumulations of evidence, as well as appreciating the role of mapping as an art.  If in an age of such widespread collations and ordering of evidence, the paper map–and the official map–is somehow rendered obsolete, even as multiple maps continue to wage authority in ordering our lives.  But the ubiquity of Google Maps can be resisted, if only by making its origins better known, and its the limits of its practices evident.  To be seduced by their objectivity is surely to ignore the continued power that maps still have.  If maps continue to offer such a pleasurable area of exploration in Grand Theft Auto and other media, it seems likely that personal meanings maps afford provide not just diversions in the esthetics of map making, but appropriations of an all too familiar authoritative form to define boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, trace networks of meaning, and give stability to collective entities, even in the age of the slippy maps fabricated by Google that convert declassified satellite photographs to easily downloadable tiles.

Wood’s prognostication of the death of the map seems premature.  Perhaps we, as consumers of digitized information, pay attention to its grounding in geographic reality and its operations, and are also less susceptible to the sequestered codes contained within maps, or the truth claims of a single map’s persuasive form.   Perhaps the map’s near-ubiquity cannot but decrease its authority.  But we do seem to stand at the brink of a future where mapping is ever-present as a form of surveillance; perhaps a society in which power has learned to work in new ways, unmoored from maps to define power and realize or recognize its bounds, but has adopted mapping forms as dispersive ways to organize power claims.  But in this society, maps can gain new power as media to realize networks of which too few seem aware.

Wood suggests that the map is dead, perhaps, as a useful tool of conversion in the arena of state.  If the act of mapping seems less clearly situated in the arena of the state, or less dominated by the state, this does not mean that maps are media that don’t still mystify relations of power.  And if the leaks of Edward Snowden have shown that the state is surveilling us to a far greater extent than ever imagined was the case, Wood found little evidence that that has made so much of a difference, or that that helps states do much of a better job.  The query cannot but arise in response:  did the map ever do that much of a functional job, or only a basis for imagining a state that performed its functions well?  Long live the map, perhaps as a form of counter-mapping.

Leave a comment

Filed under Google Maps, infographics, mapping state interests, maps and state formation, newsmaps