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Monuments in New Worlds: Mapping Columbus in America

Christopher Columbus’ transatlantic voyages assume problematic status as part of a “discourse of discovery.” For rather than markers of the fifteenth century narratives, they serve to frame a range of narratives of discovery that promote the fifteenth-century navigator as an icon of nationhood that were foreign to the fifteenth century. In making claims for the foundational role that the navigator’s transatlantic voyage, they create a new narrative of nation, particularly powerful for its ability to occlude and obscure other narratives, and indeed the presence of local inhabitants in a region, so that they assume the deracinating violence of a map: as claims of possession, and indeed mastery over space, they dislodge nativist presence in a region, much as Columbus did as a royal agent, and glorify the acts of renaming, and taking possession of, the new world, in ways that ally the viewers with the heroism of the Genoese navigator.

The questioning of continued Columbian commemoration within national identity has led to the questioning of commemorative Colombian statutary, that have proliferated across the United States, from Columbus, Ohio to San Francisco to Kenosha, WI, to Miami, as they have been dislodged from an Italian-American community–as many once were in New Haven, Boston, and Philadelphia as well as New York City–or a frame for a narrative of nation that needs to be told, or wants to be told. And attracted by a remarkable burst of creative iconoclastic energy, San Francisco’s City Arts Commission recently preemptively monument to Columbus somewhat preposterously overlooking the Pacific to be removed from its monumental pedestal–a statue long defaced in recent years–before it was defaced. The deposition of the 4,000 pound statue, with a violence that would repeat and channel the rejection of the figure of Columbus whose monuments were already deposed in Boston, St. Paul, Minnesota; Camden, NJ; Richmond, VA, and other cities in New York state, one of which was beheaded–if long after the statue to the navigator was ceremoniously pushed into the ocean in 1986, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, with a placard “Foreigners out of Haiti!”

Owen Thomas, San Francisco Chronicle

Indeed, the San Francisco’s 4,000 pound commemorative statue of Columbus, often defaced as a symbol of enslavement and subjugation in recent years, was removed by a crane and as a call to dump it into the Bay was circulating, on Thursday, June 18, removing it from a scenic site by the Pacific beside Coit Tower, leaving an empty pedestal, perhaps to reduce the need to clean up a statue that had been repeatedly defaced in recent weeks but also to show consensus about lack of interest in defending a symbol of oppression, enslavement, and colonial violence, and public outbreaks around the call to depose the statue off Pier 31, not as a symbol of colonial resistance, but an expunging of the navigator from national history.

It was as if the spontaneous prominence across the nation of memorials to George Floyd, proliferating on street walls in full color, and in haunting offset likenesses, provoked introspection demanded introspection of what sort of memorials we identified with and wanted to see the nation, placing on the front burner of all the question of commemoration in terms that had long been glossed over and tacitly accepted. The commemoration of Floyd’s murder was a rebuke of police violence, throwing into relief discriminatory monuments that left the few defenders of the monument to ask us to consider Columbus more broadly in history, rather than focus on “some of his acts, which nobody would support,” without addressing the framing of the logic of “discovery'” in imperial narratives. For the navigator embodied an imperial relation to space and terrestrial expanse, discounting the inhabitants of regions, and affirming the abstract authority of sovereign claims and sovereign expanse, however improbably early maps placed the islands in the Caribbean–later called Hispaniola–based on his conviction that the Atlantic Ocean was able to be traversed, enabling transatlantic voyages for which Spain was well poised to expand commerce far beyond the coast of Africa and the Mediterranean for economic ends in an “Enterprise of the Indies” that Columbus proposed to John II of Portugal, before he set out to claim the new lands for Ferdinand and Isabella. The longstanding embedded nature of Columbus in a discourse of claiming land–a discourse from which he was not only inseparable, but embedded maps in claims of the administration and supervision of lands far removed from seats of terrestrial power, a map-trick that has been celebrated since as a form of inscribing territorial claims on a piece of paper or globe.

And if Columbus had no actual idea of the form of North America, the persuasiveness of fictive reimagining of his mastery over space–a mastery cast almost uniformly in intellectual terms, rather than in military terms of disenfranchisement or enslavement–provided a logic that is aestheticized in the monument as a mode for the possession and persuasion of possession over terrestrial space.

The origins of these reframing are perhaps obscure, but lionizing Columbus was always about rewriting the American narrative, and distancing one race of immigrants–the Italian migrant–from the very native inhabitants that the story of Columbus displaced. The navigator was promoted actively as a figure of national unity in the post-Civil War centenary of 1892, in which Columbus assumed new currency as a national figure, a map on silver able to enter broad circulation as a memory for how a three-masted caravel mastered terrestrial expanse, resting above a hemispheric map of global oceanic expanse. The anachronistic map suggests as much a modern triumph of hemispheric cartography–the coastline of the United States was surveyed by geodetic terms and that established the role of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey in producing maps of uniform toponymy and hydrographic accuracy had only recently set standards of coastal surveying that unified triangulation, physical geodesy, leveling, and magnetic of authority within the US Navy to produce coastal maps of the nation extended from the Gulf of Mexico to the Alaskan shoreline.

The imperious gaze of the limp-haired navigator seems the first self-made man as he gazes with gruff determination on the coin’s face, almost entirely filing the surface of the first American coin bearing human likeness. Columbus was an icon it identified with how the hemispheric map took charge over a continent, and gave a sense of predestination to the recently settled question of continental integrity–and a territorial bounds that new no frontier up to Alaska, whose coast had been recently surveyed, and much of Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. Its design for the Chicago Word Exposition suggest a hemispheric dominance reflecting the growth of Rand McNally in Chicago, a map-publisher for America, as well as the self-assertion the United States as a hemispheric power, as much as the Genoese navigator about whom so many meanings have encrusted.

The striking hemispheric map of global navigability on the obverse of the coin circulated in Chicago’s World Exposition was global, but would also mimic the claims of hemispheric dominance that the hemispheric projection recalled, prefigured the Pan Am logo, in its global in reach.

In 1893, the point was made as replicas of the Nino, Pinto, and Santa Maria sailed in Lake Michigan during the Centennary, for which the U.S. Congress approved the printing of the first commemorative coin of an individual, beer flowed on tap at what was celebrated as a “blueprint of America’s future,” foregrounding the technological supremacy of the West and America. Ehe figure of Columbus was assimilated to the new technologies of transportation and conquest in a new center commerce where railroads open onto the west, in a condensation of a national celebration that cast Columbus as a figure of the destiny of western expansion, indulging in an American hyperbole of incandescent lighting, the championing of new technologies, in which the replicas of the Pino, Nina, and Santa Maria that had sailed from Spain were again sailing on a landlocked Lake Michigan were exhibited to foreground, Gokstad Viking ships sailed the flooded Midway, beside the mock-Venetian crafts of gondoliers.

Such global mariners provided a flourish within a World Exposition whose stage sets and soundstages, P.T. Barnum like, celebrated transit, transport, and mobility to astound visitors and silence all questions of not presuming to celebrate four centuries of progress; the neoclassical facades of buildings as the Administrative Building, Palace of Fine Arts, Agricultural Building, and Court of Honor, were iterations of the Crystal Palace that were precursors to Las Vegas, proclaimed the birth of a “White City” at the World Exposition that promoted the figure of Columbus and was under-written by the federal government and corporate America, recasting the shady city of vice as the “White City.”

Chicago Tribune

The claiming of Columbus as a national figure in the rebranding of the World’s Exposition set in neoclassical buildings as the site to celebrate Columbus recreated the l’Enfant architecture of the District of Columbia, and elevated the city as “white” in some of the very issues that make the continued celebration of Columbus Day so fraught in a pluralistic society: Peter van Der Krogt has surveyed in striking detail some four hundred monuments to Columbus that were erected after what was called the “World’s Columbian Exposition” in 1892-3, a century after the first monument to Columbus was built in Baltimore, in 1792, what it meant to identify Columbus as American, if not name the nation “Columbia”–the popularity of these monuments in New Jersey (32), Connecticut (15), and New York (24) suggests the clear lack of uniformity of enthusiasm of celebrating the navigator’s equivalence with the nation.

Peter van der Krogt

The fraught question of celebrating the Genoese navigator became a hot-button topic for Donald Trump to rally red state voters–“to me, it will always be Columbus Day!”–and to serve as clickbait as part of the new, perpetually churning culture wars. In an October state meeting with Italian President Sergio Mattarella, Trump was pleased to note that while “some people don’t like” the continued commemoration of Columbus’ transatlantic voyage, “I do”, as if that should be sufficient for the nation. Prime MinisterMattarella’s state visit became an occasion to espouse public disdain for the renaming of the national holiday as Indigenous Peoples Day, if not Native Americans Day, in over 130 cities across 34 states. For President Trump, doing so seemed designed not to impress Mattarella, but define a wedge in a deeper cultural urban-rural divide– a yawning divide of economic opportunities, the knowledge economy, and the shifting horizons of economic expectations, more than political belief. The nature of this poorly mapped landscape, the thin substrate of uneven economies and cultural disjunctions and divides, that passes as a political in a datamap of the district-by-district voting preferences that rips a red continuity all but from its bordering blue frame.

Mark Neumann/Red State-Blue State Divide

The national discontinuities reveal an impoverished geographic sense of meaning, one that makes all but ironical the prestige placed on the legibility of the map by the legendary figure of Columbus, who never set foot in the continental landmass now known as the United States, but was, in an era of increased hemispheric dominance of the quatrocentennary nearly engraved map–a reflection of the prominent role Rand McNally played in the organization of the Exposition of 1892, promoting the prominent place that the mapmaking company had gained in the design, dissemination and marketing of instructional printed maps in the later nineteenth century, just a decade after the Chicago-based printshop primarily producing train time-tables expanded its role in a growing educational market for globes and printed wall maps, using its engraving methods emblematized in its dramatic bird’s-eye view of the exposition.

And although it did not design the commemorative silver half dollar that included a caravel of the Santa Maria moving on creating ocean waves above the very anachronistic map that suggests the continental expanse of North and South America–as if Columbus’ guidance of the historic transnational voyage in three caravels he captained was based on a mastery of modern cartographic knowledge. The clear-sightedness of the navigator below the legend “United States of America” linked fearless scrutiny of the global expanse to the foundation of a nation, as the coin designed by the U.S. Mint sough to give circulate a discourse of national unity in the first coin printed in the United States to include the likeness of an actual individual, after hopes to copy a Renaissance portrait by Lorenzo Lotto were replaced by an austere profile suggesting intellectual grasp of space to be sold as souvenirs to visitors of the national fair. Yet the notion of hemispheric dominance was not far off: the explosion of the American naval frigate in the port of Havana led to charges to attack Spain in the press to exercise dominance ridiculed in the Spanish press–

The hint at hemispheric dominance in these maps mirror a push in the 1890s against how “the self-imposed isolation in the matter of markets . . . coincided singularly with an actual remoteness of this continent from the life of the rest of the world,” as a shift in global governance and prominence; the earlier celebration of the continental expansion of the United States to an area “equal to the entire circumference of the earth, and with a domain within these lines far wider than those of the Romans in the proudest days of their conquest and renown.”

Casting nationalism in such cartographic terms mirrored the embedding of Columbus in legacies of nationalism and colonization,–the coin that gave the navigator currency, if it silenced the recognition of the other, presenting Columbus as emblematic of a conquest of space. At a time when Italians were regarded as of different status from other whites, the figure of the Genoese navigator became a lens to project the “white” essence of the territorial United States in quadricentennial celebrations of 1892, recasting the navigator as an unlikely and implausible hero of the white race at the culmination of claiming native lands within the bloody landscape of Indian Wars–roughly, from 1860 to 1877–and to erase the violence of the seizure of these lands to crate the new map of the West, remapping the western lands “as” legible Anglophone and American, and the province of the White Man. Was Columbus the improbable hero of such whiteness and the claims of whiteness in the quadricentennary celebrations that led the nation to celebrate a “white” Italian, as a figure of the whiteness of the nation?

If we are realizing the loaded nature of the erasure of earlier inhabitants in the celebration of arrival in ‘America’ as a prefiguration of the nation, the condensation of this genealogy in the coin of the quadricentennial was a celebration of the witness of the national nd legibility of the new continental map map.

For as ethnicity was understood in sectorial and distinct terms of labor in the late nineteenth century–erased by the notion of an “end of ethnicity” and melting pot of the late twentieth century–the image of Columbus as a “white” hero, the image of the discoverer was purified of his own ethnic origins, at a time when negroes and Italians were excluded from social orders, and lived in Chicago sequestered in enclaves like Little Sicily, or Five Points in New York City, President Benjamin Harrison in 1892 promoted Columbus Day as a “one-time national celebration” to quell international tensions after lynching of Italian-Americans in New Orleans’ Little Palermo between Italy and the United States: the image on the commemorative coin of a pacified globe of continental unity as if it were included in Columbus’ fashioning of his own prophetic identity affirmed Columbus’ whiteness, as it erased the identity of indigenous subjects and silenced the other.

Columbus was promoted eagerly to claim whiteness for Italian-Americans, as well as to define a non-indigenous figure of the nation and national pride. Long before Italian-Americans adopted the festivities of Columbus Day as a regular celebration to incorporate their centrality in a civic record of national identity, as New York Times editorialist Brent Staples has put it, purged of racial connotations that continued in the popular press, only after the celebration of Columbus Day opened a pathway to integration in the face of racialist slurs. As those Sicilians who segregated in their dwellings in New Orleans were seen as targets of racial persecution, and as northern newspapers used stereotypes continued to magnify charges of poor hygiene and linguistic differences, casting Italians as vermin unfit for public schooling, Columbus provided a figure to flee from dispersion as a “Dago”: as immigration from Italy faced official restrictions by 1920, and Italian immigrants were subject to at the start of the first great Age of Mass Migration, as Calvin Coolidge barred “dysgenic” Italian-Americans from entering the country.

In the very years wen immigrants were both sectorized and accorded new status as “whites” who were eugenically suspect, and rates of immigration were slowed under the banner of eugenics, the figure of Columbus proved an able image to launch a powerful agenda of alternative immigration reform: in the very regions where the share of population of Italian origin was most pronounced by 1920, in those very counties the erection of Columbus monuments grew. They appeared in interesting fasion from the eastern seaboard inland to the Great Lakes, into the Chicago area on Lake Michigan, to the Texas and Lousiana seaboards, and San Francisco area in northern California: the dispersion of Columbus monuments across the nation below lacks dates,–

Statues and Monuments to Columbus/Peter van der Krogt

–it is a striking reflection of what U.S. Census records reveal about the relative proportional concentration of Americans of Italian parentage in the United States in 1920, when the Census tabulated those identifying as of Italian parentage as a category.

The increased transatlantic migration that occurred around the 1920s could recast the topos of overseas arrival as embodied by Columbus. The figure of Columbus as an intellectual, a civil servant, and of the statue as a monument of civic pride all encouraged the appearance of the navigator in public monuments. Of course, they recuperate the image of the placement of the flag of authority overseas, as much as vanquishing native one of the first global maps, planting the flag of authority overseas.

The question of such exportation of royal claims was a truly cartographic problem: the spatial migration of Portuguese royal authority was seen in Martin Waldseemüller’s 1514 printed global map as a pair to the discovery of a Spice Route around by Vasco da Gama. overlooking and surveying coastal toponymy in a statuesque manner, bearing the figure of the flag and cross as an ambassador of the most Christian regal monarch.

The oceanic voyages of Vasco da Gama, as of Columbus, were seen as those of an emissary of royal authority, whose travels recuperated tropes of imperial migration that derived from early church history, and were given new lease in the Holy Roman Empire by imperial chroniclers and pre-Colomban universal histories, as a spatial migration of imperial authority: in maps, the Christian migration of royal authority over space, along rhumb lines and nautical travels born by sea monsters who embodied the oceans, was a repeated topos of cartographic tradition not initiated by Waldseemüller,–the cartographer who named the continent after the Florentine navigator and mapmaker Amerigo Vespucci–

Waldseemüller world map, 1515
https:/Tabula Nova partis Africae, in Lorenze Fries’ reduced woodcut of Waldseemuller, (1541)

–and would echo the prophetic cast Columbus had assumed in his letters, and would give as he cast his exploratory voyage in terms of one of renaming, conquest, and discovery, rather than exploration, as he cast himself as acting as of an emissary of and invested with authority by the monarchs of Spain, and a delegate of royal sovereignty who had himself moved across the map to lay claim to unknown islands that he named after his royal patrons.

The naming that was cast as emblematic of civility and civilization of new lands, and of the new naming of the Land. Indeed, the privileging of the effects of cartographic literacy were felt in the Waldsemüller map. by its foregrounding of the cartographic prominence of the insularity of the lands of discovery, greatly magnified in Waldseemüller’s map to reveal the prominence they held in the European imagination as a revision of Ptolemaic geography, the islands alone doubling the territoriality of the Spanish monarchy–by expanding it to a transatlantic set of islands that were cartographically inflated in size, and not only to accommodate the toponym “Spagnuola” but magnify the scale of the discovery. If the band East of Eden sing, in Mercator Projected, declare over the strong guitar strums, “It’s in the Western Hemisphere/that’s where the nicest things appear,” Mercator effectively magnified the very same hemisphere as the cartographic expansion that doubled the demesne of Spanish kings, cleansed of all of its indigenous inhabitants.

The discovery of course altered the scope of Spanish sovereignty, as much as the cosmography Ptolemy set forth based on the astrolabe he proudly held in the upper right of this twelve-sheet wall map. In this fractured world of multiplying insular fragments, where the entire of the modern South America, here island-like, if immense, labeled “America” and below the island of Hispaniola, was “discovered by the command of the King of Castille”–island-like as Waldseemüller most likely was forced to add the to the pre-1491 global maps that perhaps remained his source–dotted with even greater abundance of islands, all acting as if beckons to potential sites of untold wealth. The figure of Columbus may be absent from the map, but the caravel identified as sent by the European monarch seems to provide the basis for information in the 1507 global map–where it seems as if the emblem of Columbus–

I found myself recently standing in New York City’s Columbus Circle, a towering column constructed shortly after the erection of the Liberty statue in New York harbor, it was hard to imagine how the towering figure of the navigator once stood above the circle.

The prominence this late nineteenth-century Columbus claims atop a pedestal before a shop of corsets is a bit comical. The 1892 statue must have been a reply to the lady who stood as a welcome sign to recent waves of immigrants; funded by the Italian language newspaper that had begun publication only a decade earlier in 1880, the monument to the Italian navigator’s discovery served as a proclamation of civic dedication as well as rected; the encounter was monumentalized as an auspicious arrival of a man who seems to proclaim the New World’s settlement before a group of shrinking natives, who retreat behind foliage.

The statuary made in Rome during the centenary of 1892, seemed intended as a moment of immigrant pride, and indeed identify the navigator as an Italian navigator, unlike the native inhabitants who seemed unclothed and barbarous. The statue of Columbus Circle stood facing to the south of Manhattan island, as if in rejoinder to the midwestern Columban exposition that celebrated the expansion of Chicago and the opening of an American West. The contest between the monuments aspiring to announce the New World back to Europe demands to be teased out, but played out over the next century.

The icon has defined the southwestern corner of Central Park, and as a monument of triumphalism has, even if it has been dwarfed by the nearby Trump International and, since 2003, the Time Warner building, the once soot-covered statuary had a prominent civic function of rehabilitating one immigrant group, if perhaps at the costs of denigrating others and promoting a dated form of patriotism. The reduced place of the smaller Trump property may now seem in the shadow of the far more monumental Time Warner complex, but Trump had already aspired to displace the tower of Christopher Columbus as he wanted to put his own imprint on the New York skyline before 1992, and readily adopted the Columbus centennary as a pretext to demote the Columbus Square column at the same time as he promoted his vision of a Trump City by the Hudson River banks, for which Columbus became a pretext as much as a backdrop of sorts.

But is it a surprise that as a New York realtor eager to dodge financial ruin in the late 1980s, Donald Trump boasted of plans to erect an immense statue of Christopher Columbus in 1992 by a Russian sculptor, Zurab Tseretelli, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, from a massive $40 million of bronze. The statuary framed as a gift from Moscow’s mayor to the New York mayor, Rudy Giuliani, to rival that of Columbus Circle must have been a massive tax write-off of the sort Trump had specialized. And grotesquely, the statue revealed, far from patriotism, the deeply transactional legacy of linking Trump’s developments to the nation, whose grandiosity of re-monumentalizing Columbus–Trump boasted the head made by the Russian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli from $40 million of bronze was already in America–“It would be my honor if we could work it out with the City of New York. I am absolutely favorably disposed toward it. Zurab is a very unusual guy. This man is major and legit.”

The grandiose claim is classic Trump, designed to feign disinterest and patriotism but searching for fame. Zurab, a prominent member of the Russian Academy, mighthave been quite legit, but building the massive bronze statuary was also a huge tax dodge to be built on Trump acreage, whose immensity only made it more valuable as a dodge and gift to the city of the sort one could write off but was also an investment inflating the real estate’s value: which Trump presented as a done deal accepted by then-mayor Giuliani as a “gift” from the Mayor of Moscow, mediated by the patriotic developer who had secured the landfill as realty he sought to boost before he built. The statue reveals early interest of the transactional nature of exchange and inflation of value, which long animated the Trump brand.

Site of Proposed ‘Trump Cityin Manhattan

The quite hideous statue, whose head had arrived in New York, was rejected for reasons unknown. The rejection was perhaps not aesthetic alone, but as the immense complex of figure and naval vessels, eventually recast as The Birth of a New World when the complex was finally installed on the coast of Arecibo in Puerto Rico, weighing in at 6,500 tons, in 2016, was hardly designed to be sustained by landfill: what piles into the Hudson’s banks would sustain all that bronze? The dedication of the statue at the year of Trump’s victory in the Presidential election was not planned, but is oddly telling. The gaudy if not hideous monument was rejected flatly first by New York, and then by Miami; Columbus, OH; Baltimore; Ft Lauderdale; and lastly Cantaño, Puerto Rico, where it faced intense local opposition, from the United Confederation of Taino People given their conviction “Colombus was a symbol of genocide, not a hero to be celebrated” by monumental statuary in the nation’s public memory.”

The collective reaction of the grotesque figural complex may have arisen because of effects on the community, but the body of the statue was recycled as it was transformed by Tseretelli, rumor has it, with a new head as Peter the Great, for Moscow, that celebrated the tsar for founding–yes–the Russian Navy. The monument that was the world’s eighth largest piece of global statuary at 93 meters voted was voted the world’s tenth ugliest buidling. The this 81 meter animated statue beside an oddly raised arm of greeting evidence that it was indeed remade in an attempt to match the massive body of bronze that remained in Moscow in 1992, or was the mismatch due to a new fashioning a body for the head returned to Tseretelli’s studio the became a monstrous monument of eery import? T eh odd disconnect of head and body seems not an illusion of perspective (witness those huge shoulders), but seems evidence of some sort of switcheroo in statuary that Tseretelli or his assistants bungled.

Zurab Tsereteli, The Birth of a New World (2016)

The image that we can entertain of Donald Trump transactionally pedaling Columbus from shore to shore tragically concludes the triumphalit Columban statuary–who better to pedal dated triumphalism? How did the Columbus statue ever arrive at this port? If removed from a discourse of discovery, the notion of “birth” is perhaps more odious.

Trump identifies himself–sons of immigrants of Scottish and German stock, allegedly, but must have wanted to bask in the idea of endowing monumentalism of Columbus statue for New York, beside Trump’s new monumentalization of his name in West Side Yards, the landfill expansion of the old yard of New York’s Central Railroad, that Trump had long sought to expand as the site of 20-30,000 residences, massive residential expansions of the city alternately hoped to be rezoned as residences and promoted to be renamed as “Lincoln West,” “Television City” and “Trump City,” all of which faced fierce community opposition, even if they were planned to feature the world’s tallest building. Would the 1992 statue be a $40 Million investment to lend prestige to the projects Trump imagined for a site he long promoted as both”positioned to get rezoning and government financing,” in 1979, and “the greatest piece of land in urban America” in 1992, housing 20,000 in 8,000 apartments and almost 10,000 parking places for the midtown area.

The “new Columbus” was as a conceit never achieved; but was it also a sense of the arrival of Trump in America, and the conquest of New York City? The statue planned to be erected on landfill was rejected for the fifth centenary and then promised to at least six other cities may speak to Trump’s disconnect from the world, and how poorly the notion of a purely triumphal celebration has aged. The grandiosity of statuary and buildings–perhaps also ugliness–was a perverse trademark of Trump, and was promoted a grotesque nationalism long dear to the developer. And it paralleled the growing public resistance to Columbus statuary that occurred in 1992 across so much of the increasingly diverse United States, as citizens questioned what was to celebrate in a figure long idealized in heroic monuments.

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Filed under American history, Columbus, commemoration, Voyage of Discovery, whiteness

The Cognitive Clouding of Global Warming: Paris and Pittsburgh; Creditors and Debtors

The argument of America First seems to have been extended to its logical conclusion as the apparently selected President of the United States has single-handedly subtracted the nation from a map of climate change.  By denying the place of the United States in the Paris Climate Accords, President Trump seems, in the most charitable interpretation, to have acted on his own instincts for what was the benefit that accrued to the country in the very short term, and after looking at the balance books of the United States government for what might have been the first time, decided that America had no real part in the map of the future of a warming world.  Rather than outright denying global warming or climate change, Trump decided that the conventions established to contain it by the world’s nations had no immediate advantage for the United States.  

The result wasn’t really to subtract the United States from the ecumene, but from the phenomenon or at least the collective reaction of the world to climate change, and openly declare the supremacy of his own personal opinion–as if by executive fiat–on the matter. The personal position which he advanced was so personal, perhaps, to be presented in terms of his own clouded thinking on the matter, or at least by seizing it to create what he saw as a wedge between national consistencies, and to use wildly incommensurate forms of data to create the impression of his own expertise on the issue–and to mislead the nation.  For Donald Trump took advantage of his having Presidential podium to diss the Paris Accords by a torrent of alliteration developed by a clever speechwriter as resting on a “cornucopia of dystopian, dishonest and discredited data.”  Even if one wants to admire the mesmerizingly deceptive excess of alliteration, the notion of rooting an initial response to planetary climate change in the perspective of one nation–the United States of America–which produced the lion’s share of greenhouse gasses–is only designed to distort.  

By pretending to unmask the Paris Accords as in fact a bum economic deal for the United States, as if it were solely designed to “handicap” one national economy, set a sad standard for the values of public office.  For as Trump dismissed data on climate change as discredited with mock-rage, and vowed that the entire affair had been designed by foreign groups who had already “collectively cost America trillions of dollars through tough trade practices” and were desiring to continue to inflict similar damage.

But the large future on trade imbalances–which he treated as the bottom line–he staged a spectacle of being aggrieved that seemed to take on the problems of the nation, with little sense of what was at stake.  Trump’s televised live speech was preeminently designed only to distract from the data on which the Accords had been based.  And even as Trump sought to pound his chest by describing the Accord as a “bad deal for Americans,” that in truth “to the exclusive benefit of other countries.”  By turning attention to an America First perspective on global warming, Trump sought to replace the international scope of the challenge–and intent of the much-negotiated Climate Accords–by suggesting that it obscured American interests, even if it only took America’s good will for granted.  As if explaining to his televised audience that the agreement only “disadvantages the United States in relation to other countries,” with the result of “leaving American workers–who [sic] I love–. . . to absorb the cost in terms of lost jobs [and] lower wages,” he concealed the actual economics of withdrawing from the Accords were buried beneath boasts to have secured “350 billion of military and economic development for the US” and to help American businesses, workers, taxpayers, and citizens.  

In continuing to dismiss the data out of hand about the expanded production of greenhouse gasses, Trump seems to seek to overturn the deceptions of data visualizations that have alerted the United States and world about the consequences of unrestrained or unbridled climate change. Trump ridiculed the true target of the nearly universally approved Accords, scoffing at the abilities to reduce global temperatures; instead, he concentrated on broad figures of lost jobs in manufacturing and industries that are in fact small sectors of the national economy, and incommensurable with the dangers of ignoring global warming and climate change, or the exigencies of taking steps to counter its recent growth.

global warming
Increased Likelihood of Temperature Surpassing Previous Records by 2050 and 2080

Sea Surface Temperatures against a Historical Baseline of a Century Ago/Climate Central

As if years of accumulated data of earth observation could be dismissed as deceptive out of hand by executive authority, independent of an accurate judgement of its measurement, Trump dismissed expert opinion with the air of a true populist whose heart lay in the defense of the American people and their well-being–as if they could be abstracted and prioritized above the world’s  Trump’s largely rambling if gravely delivered comments in the Rose Garden press conference that painted himself as daily fighting for the country cemented the alliance of populism and a war on science by its odd substitution of bad economic data for good scientific data.  

The switch is one in which his administration has specialized.  His address certainly culminated an outright dismissal of scientific conclusions based on a distorted America First picture of the world, where a stolid declaration that “the United States will withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords” made sense as form of national defense–despite the potential global catastrophe that rising global temperatures and sea surface temperatures threaten. Is the technique of juxtaposing statistics and muddying data an attempt to undermine evidence, or an illustration of his insecurity with giving authority to data, or to scientific authority, the mirrors his concern about concealing “his profound illiteracy,” or his insecurity about illiteracy, that linguist Geoffrey Nunberg argues not only distance his own speech from words, and discredits their currency, but an insecurity of having to rely on language and linguistic skills alone, in ways that might be well seen as analogues to his plentiful use of all caps on social media, as stepping outside of the language of public life to a medium more direct and complicit with his audience, if outside the usage standards of a written language.

The catastrophes were minimized by being argued to be based on “discredited data” in a bizarre flourish designed to dismiss scientific concensus  Trump conspicuously faulted not only the “discredited” but distracting nature of data  in the speech he gave in the Rose Garden on June 1, 2017 that supposedly justified his announcement of withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords in 2015 to limit heat-trapping emissions of carbon fuels that have been tied to observed climate change.  Rather than foreground the international nature of the accords among agreed upon by almost 200 nations, trump advanced the need to heed local interests, perversely, but even more perversely argued that the Accords resulted from disinformation.  He spoke to the world to chastise their recognition of scientific observations, in so doing destabilizing not only global alliances but undermining a long-negotiated climate policy by pulling the rug out from long accepted consensus not only of climate scientists but a role of national leadership that sought to remedy the failure of the Kyoto Protocol of 1997.  Trump turned his back on the Climate Accords on how to curb greenhouse gas emissions  by proclaiming their unfairness to American interests, and attacking unwanted constraints on American industry, through his own deployment of data that was even more discredited as an excuse to walk away from the prospect of a greener world.

Exiting the Green.png  Al Drago/New York Times

1. If Trump steered the nation away from green energy and into darkness, Vladimir Putin seemed to mock Trump’s rationale for the withdrawal when he mused, jokingly but ever so darkly, that “maybe the current [U.S.] president thinks they are not fully thought-through,” making open fun of Donald Trump’s image of global leadership by wryly noting in ways that echoed the absurdity of Trump’s defense of the local in place of the global.  “We don’t feel here that the temperature is going hotter here, . . . I hear they are saying it snowed in Moscow today and its raining here, very cold,” Putin noted, as if relishing undermining long-established trends in climate data by invoking a populist championing of local knowledge as if it trumped the advantages of earth observation that satellite observation has long provided.   Populism trumped expertise and Putin laughed at the possibility that the Accords might soon fail as a result.

Given the longstanding desire of Moscow to be released from constraints on exploring the billions of tons of Arctic oil on which Russia has chosen to gamble, Trump’s almost purposive blindness to a changing environmental politics of the global economy astounds for its parochialism, and its championing of place to dismiss undeniable effects of climate change that seems closely tied to carbon emissions.  For with a false populism that championed the limited perspective of one place in the world–or one’s own personal experience–Trump dismissed the maps and projections of climate change, on the basis that the “deal” was simply “BAD.”  And as a man who views everything as yet another deal, while he pronounced readiness to “renegotiate” an accord he sought to cast as a failure of President Obama to represent America’s interests, the rebuke fell flatly as the accord was never designed to be renegotiable.

Putin’s remarks were met by scattered laughter of recognition, and some smirks at the decision of the American president to withdraw form a long-negotiated set of accords to the collective dismay of our military and environmental allies, and its implicit endorsement of deniers of climate change.  The potential “axis of mass destruction” France’s climate minister has cautioned against might indeed be one of mass distraction.  For in dismissing and indeed disdaining the historical accords to limit carbon emissions, Trump sought a soundbite sufficient to stoke suspicions the climate treaty.  He sought to cast it as yet another deeply rigged system of which he had taken to compulsively warning Americans.  Such a metaphor of bounty was jarring to reconcile with onerous economic burdens cited as the prime motivations for deciding to reject the Paris Accords on Climate Change.  The jarring cognitive coinage seemed to connote its negative by a disorienting litotes; but perhaps the most striking element of the entire news conference was that Trump offered no data that backed up his own pronouncements and appearance of steadfast or only obstinate personal resolve.

Before the coherence of the embodiment of climate change in maps, Trumps jarringly juxtaposed radically different sorts of statistic to snow the nation–and the world–by disorienting his audience, on which Trump turned to a litany of complaints and perceived offenses striking for providing no data of any sort, save several bits of false data.  As much as Trump betrayed uneven command over the data on climate change, as if embedding discrete numbers in unclear fashion that supported a self-evident argument, as if they addressed one of the most carefully documented changes in the atmosphere of the world.  By juxtaposing a threat that “could cost Americans as much as 2.7 million lost jobs by 2025“–a number described as extreme but decontextualized to exaggerate its effect, framed by the dismissive statement  “Believe me, this is not what we need!“– with a projected small temperature decrease of two tenths of a degree Celsius–“Think of that!  This much”–as if to indicate the minuscule return that the “deal” offered to the United States that would have made it worthy accepting its costs–


The gesture seemed designed to juxtapose the honesty of direct communication with the deceit of the experts.   Trump’s notion of direct communication concealed the surreal enjambment of disproportionate numbers more striking by the difference of their scale than their meaning.  Of a piece with his citation of partial statistics that exaggerate his points, from “95 Million not in the U.S. labor force” as if to imply they are all unsuccessfully looking for work, targeting some 8 million immigrants as “illegal aliens”ready for deportation, or how immigrants coast American taxpayers “billions of dollars a year.”   Such large figures deploy discredited data difficult to process to conjure fears by overwhelming audience, distracting from specific problems with large numbers that communicate an illusion of expertise, or even overwhelm their judgment by talking points disseminated in deeply questionable media sources.

If the power of this juxtaposition of unrelated numbers gained their effectiveness because of a lack of numeracy–Trump’s claim of 100 million social media followers lumps his followers on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, many of whom may be the same people, and other fake persona —the numbers seem to exist for their rhetorical effect alone, as if to awe by their size and dismiss by the miniscule benefits they might provide. The point of contrasting such large and small statistics was to suggest the poor priorities of the previous administration, and dilute form the consensus reached on the modeling of climate change.  To be sure, the Trump administration also barters in fake facts on Fox News Sunday. inflating the number of jobs in coal industries, that show a misleading sense of the government’s relation to the national economy, generating a range of falsehoods that disable fact-checking, obscuring the fact that the global marketplace increasingly gives preference to cleaner energy and clean energy jobs more quickly others sectors of our national economy beyond energy industries.  The ties of Trump’s administration to fossil fuels–from the Secretary of State to the Secretary of Energy to the Secretary of the Interior down–employ the obsfuscating tactics of fossil fuel industries to obscure benefits of low-carbon fuels.  Indeed, the inability to “renegotiate” a deal where each nation set its own levels of energy usage rendered Trump’s promise of the prospect of renegotiation meaningless and unclear, even if it was intended to create the appearance of him sounding reasonable and amiable enough on nightly television news.

Broad hands.png
Cheriss May/Spia via AP

Another point of the citation of false data was to evoke a sense of false populism, by asking how the Accords could ever add up.  In isolating foregrounded statistics great and small, tightly juxtaposed for rhetorical effect, the intent seems consciously to bombard the audience to disorienting effect.  We know Trump has disdain for expertise, and indeed the intersection between a sense of populism with disdain or rejection of science may be endemic:  in formulating responses to a global question like climate change that he has had no familiarity with save in terms of margins of profits and regulations.  Rather than consulting experts, the President has prepared for public statements by consulting sympathetic FOX media figures like Kimberly Guilfoyle who pander by endorsing the notion of a climate conspiracy–not experts, who use data as obscuring foils, suggesting an ecology of information originating from pro-fossil fuel industry groups.

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Filed under data visualization, data visualizations, Donald J. Trump, Global Warming, statistics

Fit to Print?

The iconography by which maps address their viewers might be framed in productive ways within historically situated economies of visual attention with interesting results.  For as much as they reflect practices of production, the ways that maps have engaged viewers who struggled with new ways to grasp expanse reveal a dialectic between graphic invention and a larger marketplace images, despite the tendency of those who style themselves historians of cartography to focus on their formal qualities or the mathematics of geographic production.  From their insertion at conspicuous places within some of the earliest printed world histories, mapmakers actively courted readers’ attention by crafting increasingly persuasive claims in aesthetically challenging ways, and by raising the stakes of their abilities to process expanse.  The promise to crafting a satisfying harmony of comprehensive global coverage has long existed in uneasy balance with their narratives.

The success by which cartography and art communicate globalism might benefit from tracing the ways in which globes have long tried to engage their viewers’ attention.  The woodcut of a world map below, designed circa 1490, defined a global purview for readers in ways intended to be cognitively satisfying, promising to orient them to unseen regions by scattered rivers and landmarks, even if they did so by using means that seem antiquated, being both of restricted scope and mediated by inherited ideologies of empire, Christocentric beliefs, and specifically Eurocentric models.  But the promise of expanding horizons led this bold two-page map to be prominently placed in a universal history to mark the recession of waters in a post-diluvian world, suspended in the hands of Noah’s three sons–Shem, Japheth, and Ham–serves as a blank slate to inscribe a global history that proceeds to span across generations to the Resurrection of Christ.

If the map of the world is crude by what we think of as modern standards, and possesses no clear spatial indices, the symbolic power of a planisphere of clearly Ptolemaic origins was modern:  the engraved schema provides ways of orienting viewers to the lavishly illustrated book’s s expansive content as a comprehensive condensation of collective histories about the world’s regions–making good on the recent authority of such projections along latitude and longitude to reveal an aggregate history charging the growth of worldly and ecclesiastical power over the emergent consciousness of a global expanse, centered roughly on Jerusalem, inscribing a succession of empires over terrestrial space.  Indeed, the discoveries of the New Worlds that were mentioned in the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle (a compilation of universal history of somewhat scholastic origins known as the Liber chronicarum or “Book of Chronicles”) occupy small place in the service of describing the chronology of a succession of imperial ages that culminated in the ascension of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I.  The early world map that seems to have derived from a Florentine archetype was used to describe the recession of waters after the Noahic flood in ways whose power existed to set the stage for the rise of Greek and European empires, rather than the discoveries.


world chronNuremberg Chronicle (1491); fol. 13 (Anton Koberger, Nuremberg)


If maps no longer convey such a stable sense of narrative progress, and such an engraving would no longer seem a marvel, most maps do considerable work in engaging an economy of visual attention.  The world is with fewer open spaces than it was for Noah’s three sons, and global history resists linear narratives, despite the resilience of similarly terrifying apocalyptic notes, at times fed by a rage for biblical prophecy that generated sufficient demand for tracking daily fluctuations of a Rapture Index available for online consultation.

Globalization demands adequate expression by a visual image that can engage its viewers, hopefully by more than the material underside of the interlinked–perhaps a map more fully revealing of the shifting nature of individuals’ relation to the inhabited world.  At a time when the earth is crisscrossed with media systems whose signals are relayed along 6,300 tonnes of satellites–and over 8,000 physical objects that orbit its surface and will outlast its inhabitants as a necklace of debris–we lack maps of how we inhabit the world or have remade our relation to it.

satelites-espacio-google world view


Such computer-generated visualizations offer the chance to visualize the satellites that track our changing global positions and information flows, relaying media world-wide over a multiplicity of interconnections:  the image reveals what lies outside our visual abilities or comprehension–and which we would be otherwise all too apt to forget otherwise– by using government data to allow us to visualize the multiple layers at which satellites orbit our planet, even if they make it hard to track the wide array of signals that they transmit, intercept or surveil.  But they were absent from the multiple covers that served to catch readers’ attention in the global-themed relaunch issue of the New York Times Magazine, a striking photograph of a suspended glowing globe, shot in a studio setting with an exposure that disorientingly overlaps the toponyms of Africa and South America, whose equatorial line seems to cut the globe in an unfamiliar place.

The maps offer an angle to contemplate the stunning long-exposure image of a rotating globe editors of the Magazine recently commissioned from photographer Matthew Pillsbury as a cover illustrating the rapidly changing world for a relaunch issue.  The lit globe seeks to communicate both “the idea of chaos in the world, and how this is something we have all learned to deal with,” the design director observed.  But the cover of the New York Times Magazine designed by Pillsbury demands attention both for how it holds the viewer’s interest and renders the globe as its ostensible subject.  The photograph is an artistic interpretation, and compelling illustration that reveals multiple relations between art and cartography, as much as it describes the relations between nature and culture or between news media and globalization.  But if the image was intended to convey the “speed at which our world is changing” to readers, and presumably represent the news covered in its pages, it gives pause–even as an image that reflects on current quandaries of abilities to sustain the successful illusion of a promise of comprehensive news coverage in an ever-changing world.


1.  The almost transient shadow toponymy in the globe as Pillsbury managed to photograph so that the names of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Brazil congregate in a ghostly region off the shore of Africa, and Europe is suitably displaced to its upper regions, suggests the shifting focus of the news, and even questions the familiarity of reading the globe though that most conventional didactic of mapping forms, a globe of the sort one might have encountered in a schoolroom when learning about world geography for the first time:  the apparent overlapping of continents and blurring of the northern hemisphere destabilize our surety of global geography in an intriguing way, set, disembodied, above the words “HELLO, WORLD,” ask we re-examine the map we thought we knew.

The five-color globe that appears in the header to this post is, in fact, while a welcome departure from the templates of Google Maps, similarly opaque in the very inscrutability of the very glittering image of earlier attempts to map the earth that it offers.  Pillsbury’s long-exposure photograph of a spinning lit globe deserves interest as an advertisement of how the newspaper of record mediates news from a perspective that narrates a version of world news increasingly interlinked and less stable through a strikingly retro medium of mapping as a glowing globe.  The photograph addresses how the shifting of what once seemed immovable territorial boundaries circa 1989 have not only been redrawn but shift with an unforeseen fluidity challenging to comprehend.  Yet more than inviting us to interrogate relations, or the mobility of global populations and goods, the image almost aesthetically distances the spinning globe from viewer as much as it reveals levels of entanglement of places to one another and intensified contesting of sovereignty.  The blurred five-color surface of the spinning globe seems to abstract mapping from human geography.  It not only suggests the opacity of its ostensible subject; indeed, it almost asks the observer to throw up their hands in something passing for marvel at the illegibility of a large area of familiar regions, and at the increasing entanglement of current events.  It almost revels in being intentionally opaque, however, as if to say that the old indices of orientation just won’t work or clearly be commensurate to the take on current events that it will describe.


2.  To be sure, in an age of the proliferation of maps on multiple platforms and hand-held devices, it’s refreshing to rehabilitate the schoolroom globe, and almost ask us about our current world’s distance from it.  Oddly, however, Pillsbury’s cover employs an almost antiquated didactic object, a school map, relinquishing interactive mapping tools, to suggest the quick-changing world.  By spinning a schoolroom globe at high velocity to craft a visual pun to illustrate global change, the cover raises as many questions as it answers.  What seems a conservative cartographical format-if here used somewhat tongue in cheek–as an icon of cartographical authority is almost prosaic.  The sheen of the surface takes advantage of the conventional five-color globe of the world to seem to suggest a surface whose very colors and hues are so blurred to render them and all surface toponymy illegible, as much as an image of totality of global relations.  As may befit the newspaper of record, the globe is steadfastly traditional in its familiar five-color design:  it suggests a space by no means fixed, where boundaries around countries are redrawn and surfaces blurred for all practical purposes, but only tweaks the most standard image of the global coverage to suggest a disorienting sense in which we might lose familiarity in its geographical contours, rather than promise truly comprehensive coverage.  

For the globe’s illegibly blurred surface almost erases the considerable varieties of mapping by which we’ve come increasingly to understand and orient ourselves to the world, and almost relinquishes hopes for a new ethics of a world view, but just suggest the inadequacy of imagining the ideas of terrestrial location, proximity and geopolitics as received from earlier school globes.


Is it that the idea of boundaries of knowledge are just not so clearly fixed after all, or that the problem of providing a single authoritative viewpoint is being explicitly acknowledged?  What does it seek to illuminate?


More troubling, Pillsbury’s photograph of a glowing globe offers us no place to decipher almost a single word:  the effect is almost to see words swimming across its ghostly surface, unlike the transient figures that inhabit urban spaces in his stunning body of photographs of urban spaces.  The notion of a commission from the photographer to create an image of global coverage might be misplaced.  For Pillsbury has worked primarily in cities like New York, Paris, Venice, or London, using his knowledge of the local to much advantage, as well as Japan, more recently, where he’s taken advantage of a Guggenheim Fellowship to  turn his lens toward explorations of Tokyo’s public spaces.  His subjects have been less global than relentlessly cosmopolitan in scope.  Pillsbury’s recognizable style is more than a sign that the Times seeks to cultivate readers as the hip newspaper of record by the image in this post’s header, as much as suggest an actual global purview of different spaces.  The picture is almost a way of conveying just how difficult the job of the news is to convey all that’s fit to print, in a time when the world seems spinning faster than ever before.


3.  As an artist who has investigated the relations of crowds to urban space the spaces in New York that he knows well, often working to illuminate the “performance” of identity in interior or cavernous public spaces where individuals and crowds congregate, Pillsbury has cleverly employed extended exposure to blur the boundaries among individuals  in urban space and place.  The result is to question the relation of the individual to settings that might be otherwise familiar.  The extended exposure of the globe is less of a site for staging events or a setting, than a surface just out of contact with the viewer’s eye.  Despite the suitability of Pillsbury’s medium to observations of the interaction between individuals and images, or crowds visiting museums, such images are effective as encouraging ongoing visual investigations by expanding time in exposures from a few minutes to an hour that is collapsed into a single image.  They indicate the changing “geographic imagination” by which we all inhabit different spaces.  The spinning globe is photographed less to offer a record of lived space than an almost fetishized surface as an object, more than inviting viewers to consider the spaces that they inhabit; if the urban spaces can never be stopped or reduced to a purely static form, the globe is always in motion and hard to perceive save by the brightly lit sheen it presents.  It recalls a past legibility of space, rather than propose a prospect of continued legibility.

The photograph on the cover of the Times Magazine, despite its candy colors, contains a clear note of melancholy of the absence of hopes for adopting a clear relation to space, even as it radiates contentedness in that realization.  The photograph is perhaps best taken as a meta-observation on the success with which maps can continue to command interest in a changing world.  The candy-colored globe is an icon of cosmopolitanism, not primarily oriented toward coverage, blurring the notion of one-to-one signification, and almost attesting to its own inadequacy.  That is not, however, the most confident self-image for journalism to project.  And it hardly helps that we have to wade through about fifty pages of full-color advertisements for high-level commodities and financial services, speckled with small articles, until we find articles about the world in the Times‘ recent “Global Issue” that meet the promise its title posed, but raise some of the issues about which we might want to learn if we could better distinguish its spinning surface after all.


Spinning a Globe to show speedNew York Times Magazine


4.  The photograph interstingly contrasts to how Pillsbury regularly runs long exposures to pose topics of visual interest that invite us to look at how spaces are inhabited in new ways, raising compelling questions about the construction of space and how we live in it, the globe’s familiar surface offers more of an elusive object of desire and a commodity–and not provide a space that invites us into it, and whose business invites us to sort outs its contradictions.  For if the issue doesn’t really invite us to look at the world, so much as the advertisements suggest the globalized economy it serves, the sort of select writing that we have to wade through glossy ads to find is a deserved reward, but hardly a point of entrance.

Another of Pillsbury’s images of a strikingly similar color palette suggests the pronounced permeability of place to humans, and explores a living geography defined by human interaction in ways static maps can rarely either work to successfully register.

Pillsbury_Matthew_RobotRestaurantTokyoTV14628_2014_0© Matthew Pillsbury / Courtesy of Benrubi Gallery, NYC


But the ghostly presence of the illegible globe almost suggests a world that can’t be grasped, about which we are as mesmerized as challenged to process information.  Rather than invite the reader to interpret global space, the image seems a farewell to geography as a matrix of information, rather than the promise of global coverage made by most earlier symbolic maps in newspaper mast-heads or the animated backdrops of nightly news television shows.


globe by paraidesNew York Times


One senses that there is less interest in the history of an icon of spatial inter-relations, and networks of relationships, than an insider knowledge of how far we have come from the sorts of globes we used to use in school.  The photograph seems to gesture, however, to a long history in the twentieth century that takes the globe as a promise of the coverage that the news–or a news channel–could offer, if its iconic role seems to have considerably atrophied as it grew increasingly antiquated in current news graphics, which cultivate far more dynamic modes of visual engagement.


5.  The iconic marquis of De Lauer’s News Stand in Oakland, CA, whose range of international papers made it a mecca of the hard-to-find remains a survivor of the on-line.  The globe of its marquis dates from the Cuban Missile Crisis, as is perhaps evident in its charmingly corny magnification of the United States.  The globe so prominent behind the name “De Lauer’s” in the marquis provides a notable predecessor of the symbolic promise of mediating global information, and the purchase of the authority of the globe as a promise of the delivery of objective information to a shifting readership of news; even if the prominence of the United States on the map belies the fact of the range of international news it continues to sell, the marquis illustrated the inter-connected nature of the world delivered in print daily to the door of an Oakland news stand.


DeLauer's StorefrontOakland, CA

The image of the newscaster reading the globe was easily transposed to early television news for some years as an authoritative setting of addressing a public audience of viewers, back when news was of a considerably more univocal enterprise.  What now seems too a tired template for breaking news has retreated to a background of increasingly schematic form, no longer the authoritative site of enunciation from a position of expertise it was for Walter Cronkite’s newsroom, even as the studio backdrop map was recently reinstated for current newscasts.  The map in front of which Cronkite spoke was something of the objective correlative of  the reliability of the individual newscaster, or a sign promising continued confidence in his pronouncements, and was updated in the famous equal area Goode homolosine projection that was adopted for CBS Evening News.



Cronkite sd

cronkite wall map

 Walter Cronkite (c. 1968)

It’s unclear if this is still the case, even if the network has recently resurrected the same backdrop, it seems to lack comparable authority.


The stability of the globe has atrophied in network news, receding to a backdrop with strikingly less signifying power.  The globe has become a glyph of reduced prominence and authority–not only because of compelling graphics, but as its meaningfulness seems increasingly worn and holds less promise or stages a narrative of global coverage not clearly attached to a somewhat overly tired symbol.  No longer corresponding to the omnipresence of proliferating online maps in our worlds and on our other screens, the world map seems a superadded surplus, almost an older piece of mental furniture pressed into new service.


The world map is often pressed into service as a supporting graphic rather than an authoritative point of reference:

world news.




It’s hard to say how much a static map can pose the pretense of authoritatively describing a terrain that seems so rapidly shifting and whose dynamics of power it could hardly capture.  It is difficult to assert  the globe’s a promise of comprehensive coverage, or successful a medium to hold the viewer’s attention.


6.  To be sure, the continued promise that the globe makes is not truly able to be taken so seriously, as well, given the multiplicity of news sources that we tend to presume, and the difficulty of assuming that one source would credibly count as a fount for universal coverage.  Although global coverage remains an icon of authority, the geographical distribution of news items printed in the Boston Globe, MIT’s Center for Civic Media‘s project “Mapping the Globe” demonstrates, by showing the return on the promise of global purview promised in the newspaper’s masthead against its stories–demonstrating a predictably skewed coverage in 2011-15.  If reflective of recent global “hot-spots” in Egypt, Syria, Pakistan, and Iraq in that period, the skewed nature of their current coverage directs attention to and mediates a picture of global politics to its readers which one can easily re-imagine as distorting actual its proportions in response to proportions of the paper’s coverage:

boston globe:world

While this partly depends on the paper’s distribution, and putting news on the table that will grab attention–and this interactive map will allow viewers to investigate the map at much further depth, below its surface, by hyperlinks to the exact stories about each region that they can scroll through, as if by a toponymical indexing of the newspaper’s coverage of recent events:

boston globe news

Articles per capita MA

It raises questions of the picture of the world that we see refracted in the news stories that the Globe prints, and what it effectively filters out of the mix to provide its coverage of news.

glboal map

The result, based on a morphing of the world map by data about stories related to countries in the Guardian newspaper, 2010-2012, was remapped accordingly by the energetic and enterprising cartographer Benjamin Hennig, in a cartogram that reveals the distortion of hemispheric privileging of space in the newspaper’s coverage, while maintaining the actual land/water ratio:  the result instructively magnifies the mideast, US, and Europe, echoing of distortions of the Mercator globe, while magnifying the AfPak region and Iraq, much of the Middle East, and both Japan and the Koreas:


Even without actually drawing an proportional cartogram of global areas covered in stories that reach print, such as that created by developers of Worldmapper, from Hennig to Danny Dorling, which rescale the size of nations in proportion to how often it is mentioned in online news items, or to create metrics of places corresponding to the size of articles newspapers devote attention to them–and perhaps have retained active bureaus–newspapers hard-wire our brains to a global map or worldview we all too readily internalize.  The worldview leads us to expect stories from regions of the world, and to suddenly make space for others–Ukraine; Liberia; Nigeria–aware that they may suddenly may disappear.  This might be called the world we bring to the paper, as we first click on its homepage or physically open its pages, as much as the world that the paper covers.  But the blurred world of shifting toponymy that Pillsbury preserves is more often one that lies just out of reach.

In terms of the acknowledgement of the blinders by which the world’s news is actually mediated, it’s nice to close with the combined tension of peace and violence created by the coexistence of obliteration of information and an ideal of harmony refigured by far more ironical image created by Maurizio Cattelan and Pier Paolo Ferrari for the same Magazine.  Cattelan and Ferrari provocatively painted of a repainting of the globe’s surface that both conveys a suggestion of blissed-out harmony of the island of the lower forty-eight states, and a terror of obliterating all existing toponymy save that in the forty-eight states between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, save the partly obscured lettering noting both oceans.  This masking of a map shows an optimistically if terrifyingly blinkered news, a sense that the world is best in our hands when we’ve obliterated most all that is outside our immediate purview, prepared by what seems a man in a dark blue serge suit, who is calmly and decisively moving a brush studiously to conceal most of the surface of the inhabited world with baby blue paint, in a sort of Brave New World image of preparing What We Want To See as much as ‘All the News that’s Fit to Print’–and wonder if its consequences are so pure–and who is the suitably anonymous man in the blue serge suit who is doing the overpainting, anyways.   (It echoes the rendition of a perpetually sunny scenery in Google Maps, though even Google is more forthright in offering geographical coverage.  But it would be hard to offer less than shown below.)

Cattelan DetailCattelan/Ferrari

The multi-media image of a painted-over globe seems to record the censoring of what we need to know, and what is to be seen–and presents us with the manicured image of what we know best if not a view of the world where censorship is the new norm.  In the post-Snowden world, we cannot help but think about NSA’s efforts to infiltrate internet carriers and compromise global telecommunications networks without concern for international law–or treatises with the sovereignty of neighboring countries in the Caribbean:  in this globe there is “an equal measure of terror and peace,” although  the peace lies in obscuring of the world outside of the United States by blanketing the entire world with coats of light turquoise latex paint.

Cattelan's US 48Cattelan/Ferrari (detail)

Both images provoke us to consider the ways that the image provide commentaries on news as a space for learning around the world, or to orient ourselves to the dynamics by which we describe and are invited to investigate the world.

The mediated nature of news is, of course, not so tacitly commented on by the image of the editorial team that assembled the updated Magazine, young folks huddled around a large-screen Apple monitor of pretty similar ethnic identity and economic background, preparing the image of the world that will be soon ready to be consumed.  Has the screen replaced the globe?

22edlet_ss-slide-U7WL-articleLargeNew York Times

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Maps, Mapping, Globalism: Imaging the Ecumene’s Expanse

That most ancient of words, Oikumene, expanded from the Greek “oikos” to designate a dwelling or residence, or ecumene denoted less the technical abilities of mapping or tools for describing of the world than the demarcation of inhabited lands in which civilized people or members of the church existed:  but the divulgation and expansion of the notion of mapping abilities have in recent years, since the explosion of information databases and during intense globalization since the 1980s, extended the notion of the ecumene that has grown to extend beyond the map.  It increasingly is invested as a terms with ethical connotations to understand or foreground humanity’s relation to its environment–or retake the human from the map–at a time when virtually no part of the world is not inhabited.  Indeed, the possibility of drawing frontiers between an uninhabited and inhabited world–or of defining limits of the inhabitable world–is so diminished that the concept of bounding areas are not clear; the areas of the earth that are no longer inhabited, its “open spaces” or unsettled areas have catastrophically declined in the past twenty years.

But the continued interest we have in describing how we occupy the world, if not demarcating the boundaries of the world, is at the center of the data flows and databases we process in GIS and that increasingly lie at our finger tips.  The instant generation of maps of the inhabited areas of the world have paralleled the catastrophic decline since the 1990s, when a tenth of existing wildlife declined and the catastrophic losses of wildlife confirmed at the  IUCN World Conservation Congress:  the shocking fact that only 23 percent of wilderness remains doesn’t even include the future effects of global warming, the current crisis in history’s tragedies mankind is currently in the process of having created or on its way to create.  Indeed, the destruction of wilderness–what are deemed intact landscapes that are mostly free of human disturbance–has perhaps most radically changed the nature of the inhabited world.  Since the “Last of the Wild” map was first published in 2002, the loss of almost a tenth of formerly uninhabited lands in the last decade is the most rapid expansion of human settlement of the planet, with some 3.3 million sq km of once-uninhabited lands lost, of which 2.7 million sq km2 are considered globally significant–a loss of some carbon biomass in forests destroys a resource that offsets atmospheric CO2.


But let’s return to maps, such realities being to painful for me to contemplate.  Even as the entire earth is now inhabited, much is to be gained in the concept of actively mapping expanse both by preserving an analytic relation to that image of expanse, too often rendered abstractly in computer-generated cartographical media, and encouraging an analytic relation to how the material contents of maps embody space.  Crafting an image of the inhabited world as a bound expanse enjoyed a somewhat neglected historical lineage as a form of knowing the nature of an inhabited world and of orienting viewers or readers to the expanding unknown from the Roman empire:  the considerable intellectual heft of the term inherited from ancients–Eratosthenes, Ptolemy, and Strabo–and its signification of the inhabited and inhabitable earth informed most Renaissance maps and atlases, in which practices of mapping gained new epistemic ends as mediating comprehensive knowledge.

The comprehensive genre of the atlas, an illustrated set of maps promising true global coverage of lands linked by seas, developed in concert with the knowledge that the inhabited world extended beyond earlier imagined confined, and borrowed an expansiveness previously limited to nautical cartography or mapping.  The description of the distance to the edges of the world, if inherited from antiquity, provided a model for understanding the nature of the discoveries for the educated audiences among whom the first maps of the terrestrial ecumene first circulated both in manuscript and print–from the illuminated codices produced in Florence to the massive twelve-sheet wall-map announcing the Columban discoveries that the erudite Martin Waldseemüller compiled in the early sixteenth century Strasbourg from the school at nearby Saint-Dié-des-Vosges.



The visual qualities of mapping, symbolized as an expansive landscape, cast the embrace of the inhabited world with qualities of perceptual transcendence over its variations and divisions.  Ancient geographic treatises included few maps; but mapping the ecumene created a relation of expanse and an observer’s eye in the late fifteenth century by organizing and ordering the globe’s inhabitation.  And although it’s odd to think of the ecumene as an inheritance of ancient geography that’s still employed, the inheritance mapping the inhabited earth resonates with Geographic Information Systems–although fashioning an image of the world’s geography has little of the ethical intent it seems to have enjoyed in both the ancient and early modern worlds.  When we daily orient ourselves to how space is inhabited on our computer screens, iPhones, or androids, we frame an image that bounds a record of how space is inhabited either to orient us to where we are going or how the presence of cars, people, bacilli, or weather defines the inhabit world.  Paradoxically, the growth of GIS technology has increased the manner of ways we can chart the inhabitation and presence of man in space, if it has not increased how we define its continuity, it has also provoked both a Renaissance of mapping and a crisis in the authority of the map as a representational record of the ecumene and its bound, as well as its bounded nature.

While the rest of this post isn’t exactly heavy lifting, but is stuff I’m still processing and finding my way around.

1.  The assemblage of maps in a sequence of global coverage was identified with the cultural distinction Ptolemy gave to the project of world-mapping on a graticule of meridians and parallels, to be sure, both compressing a growing sense of the world’s navigable expanse and indexing its toponymy along climactic zones.  The term ecumene challenged the mental imagination by encompassing local variety in a capacious global category, ordering a global map in a neatly bounded surface beyond the Indian Sea, and up to the limits of known land, in a feat of mental dexterity as much as precise or accurate map of exactly determined scale.  The lower boundary of the map copiously noted “terra incognita,” as later projections–and left it at that, as an expansive white space that exists beyond the sea and lakes of the moons, as this Florentine map includes, adopting the notion of an extensive northern ocean to frame the inhabited world–even while seeing the Indian Ocean as closed.


Indeed, even as the world grew more detailed and other continents were registered as inhabited, as in the Ortelian planisphere, the growth of regions of terra incognito expanded, as if to parallel the known regions which were designated by naturalistic landscapes:  the unknown regions of “America dive India Nova” were paralleled with the imagined “Terra Australis,” a later configuration of the mythical Java la Grande.


The ancient Greek astronomer and scientist Claudius Ptolemy proposed using terrestrial maps on geometrically derived parallels and meridians as tools of portmanteau-like capacity to comprehend terrestrial spaciousness, by segmenting the world’s inhabited surface by degrees of longitude.  The notion of mapping totality was particularly fertile for early map-readers a decade before 1492.  The tools for mapping the ecumene or inhabited world provided an ambitious compendium of global knowledge, although the geographic knowledge of the world was limited–and still was by the time of this world map, illuminated circa 1482:  although restricting the ecumene for modern eyes, its capacious reach extends south to inner Ethiopia and northward, beyond its broken frame, to embrace northernmost isles beyond Thule.  Rings of uninhabited islands indeed constituted, John Gillis has recently noted, part of the mental furniture on the boundaries of the inhabited world for most fifteenth-century men, and suggested a comforting bounding of the world that seemed to illustrate its protection and insulation, lying as it did between uninhabitable climactic zones and far-off seas.

The ethno-centered ancient term maintained a sense of charting the world’s recognizable inhabitants or those that mattered to the readers of maps:  so, in the Augustan age, Roman’s referred to the expanse of the empire as the ecumene, beyond which lived barbarians.  But even as it retained a bounded sense for Renaissance readers, the totalizing image of an ecumene provided a way to imagine the population of an expanse greater than lay in the ken of most–and to understand coherence within a world that included information from far-off lands, even if many fifteenth-century people lacked clear geographic categories of spatial division of an inhabited terrestrial expanse.  The edges of the earth were oddly clear for a period that suggests limited familiarity with expanse: the monsters and extraordinary riches found there were included in fifteenth-century editions of Ptolemy’s handbook of world geography, including elephants in the island of Taprobane, beyond India, trees that had leaves year-round, multitudes of serpents, and cannibals.  These were the signs of the world beyond what humans knew, and included the bare-footed gymnosophists of India.

The compendious divisions of this mental map in a sense informed an engraved world map printed as the sixth page of the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle, or “Book of Chronicles,” a “universal” history that promised a temporal compendium of world history, embracing historical ages in order to be able depict the division of continents from its creation through after the recession of waters in the Noahic flood through the succession of worldly empires that Augustine and Orosius had famously described–a work that captured the early taste for engravings as mediating information in Renaissance Nuremberg.   Romans discussed their empire as the ecumene, imitating how Greek geographers discussed an ecumene at whose fringes lived fundamentally other foreign Peoples, outside the scope of human concern and beyond the limits of human inhabitability; the world-map in the Chronicle placed outside its borders the excluded races of  Cynocephali, one-footed Sciopods, reverse-footed Antipods, bearded women, and one-eyed cyclopean monsters.  These lay outside the three regions divided among Noah’s three sons Shem, Japhet and Ham, or ecumene, and outside its image of the inhabitable world where humans dwelled, but also reflected the new world that the recession of waters in the Noahic flood had revealed to human sight, and the projection of the world that its editor included registered the shock of the prospectus terrarum that the lessening of global waters worldwide revealed–and the ecumene it unveiled:




Hand-illuminated versions suggests significant curiosity in these creatures placed outside of the map’s ruled boundary who dwelled in a different space from the river-nourished environment of what one supposed to lie on the edges the habited world:


Secunda Aetas Mundi



The ecumene had of course already expanded dramatically by 1490 or 1493 that challenged thought about its both its boundedness and uniformity and cartographical forms to represent spatial expanse.  It continued to expand dramatically in the following years for readers of maps.  Similar monstrous races were included on its peripheries:  in the northern limits of Asia, a boundary of the inhabited world, even in Martin Waldseemüller’s learned Carta marina of 1516–both in response to literary sources and travelogues as well as the mental furniture of the bounded region of human habitability.  Many of these races were left off of the map as “an empirically known space,” for the very reason that they challenged and threatened a human space, and the boundaries of the world revealed by maritime exploration were unknown–even if sea monsters were increasingly banished from the more the edges and unknown areas of the more refined world maps, as the Carta marina.


Waldseemuller 1516 carta nautica


The consciousness of limits of habitability or human settlement was a graphic expression of Strabo’s mandate that geographers show the world’s inhabited part, as much as its inhabitants or populations to readers to satisfy curiosity and to respond to a need to describe its limits, as much as its totality:  “the geographer must describe the inhabited world in its known parts, neglect its unknown regions, as well as what is out of reach” (II, 5,5), placing a primacy on describing those parts of the world or communities in which humans live.  Although most fifteenth-century people did not easily domesticate the idea of an extensive space, let alone an undifferentiated expanse, picturing the unity and comprehensiveness of the ecumene became a basis for thinking about expanse, and comprehending difference:  the image of the ecumene in the Nuremberg Chronicle became a basis for continuing a rambling shapeless narrative grounded in a series of embedded or potted histories of place, each defined around an individual city and city view:  the ecumene was the landscape, if you will, in which each was situated.  There is often limited notation of a matrix of parallels and meridians in what might be called a readable fashion in early Ptolemaic maps:  it helped make space legible and material–or a sense that they are conventions of understanding the dramatic contraction of global space, but not indices of way-finding or marking place, as in these gores, identified with Waldseemüller’s school of cartography, ostensibly made for a small globe.





What has happened to the notion of the ecumene?  Even as the Ptolemaic ecumene was expanded, the community embraced in the map grew, rather than being abandoned, if New Worlds were processed into a map that reduced the prominence of Europe at the center of the inhabited world.  But the expanse of the ecumene held together, as it were, a sequence of regional maps, partly because the concept contained the promise that the whole world could be divided and known in synoptic form in a series of synoptic images that reconciled spatiality and territoriality.  Although mapping the continuity of expanse undergirded Renaissance cartographical images, the precision offered considerable wiggle-room, as it was limited only to the known.  But the division of space into bounded records of expanse were influential; the “chorographical” map of community became a counterpart of the totalizing coverage of a geographic projection.  To be sure, such maps responded to the diversity of ecumene that were discovered.  And maps provided models to mediate culturally fragmented collectivities, and fashion coherence across confessionally-divided communities– as the national map Oronce Fine designed of France to the French national atlases of the late sixteenth century to the English maps of Christopher Saxton, or Philip and Peter Apian’s maps of Central Europe, or a cycle of maps of the Italian peninsula that Egnazio Danti organized for a corridor leading to the apartments of Catholic Pope, discussed in an earlier post.  The coherence of each of these regions provided a sort of microcosm to the ancient geographic ecumene as it gestured to the wold that Romans civilized.


2.  The second half of this blogpost shifts focus.  In ways that less linked to cartographical models, it uses the notion of an ecumene to interrogate the survival of a  mapped global space in more modern mapping techniques.  We now lack similar boundary lines, of course, and measure contact among its regions rather than being awed by the immensity of the world’s expanse.  But the same term gained an ethical heft  in Enlightened thought to express a mandate for cosmopolitans to inhabit the world to become citizens of its entire expanse and cultures.  This shift in meaning, often thought of as a rupture, suggests continuities with the contemplative uses of globes for ancients as signs of learning or stoic remove.  The modern recuperation of the ecumene, distinct from its sense of the community of Christians (inherited from the Enlightenment) or the community of mankind is more striking as a relation to a lived environment, in ways that recuperates the ontological category of ecumene in order to describe and refer to the “humanized” world in which we now live–whose surface is more fully inhabited than ever before, but its nature shaped and informed by humanity both in regional environments and as a whole.

Augustin Berque has emphasized the benefits of attending to a relation, described by Tissier, between man and the planet in his 1993 article in the journal Persée, striking for how they dispense with the very category of a map if provocative for how they recuperate the ancient term in an ethical sense.  The term “ecumenical” oriented the term to the continuity in a community of believers.  But the ethos recuperated by Berque refers to what is human in the world, and a way of being, stripped of a fixed ethnocentric perspective.  By locating the “oikumenal” in terms of human geography stripped of a cartographical foundation, his sense eerily prefigures the images of the inhabited world that are both the benefits and costs of GIS as a basis for judging one’s own relation to the global world.  Berque has removed this ancient term of encyclopedic or positivistic coverage as a material register of geographic toponomy and the ancient craft of map making that embodied a fixed relation to the world.  His construction of an ecumene encompassing human society and its relation to the environment melds nature and culture in ways similar to the ancient term in its ethical connotations.  But his usage oddly dispenses with its graphic construction in favor of a global consciousness:  for in calling attention to the “ecumene,” has removed mankind’s relation with the earth’s surface is removed from a simple demonstrative function of the map:  much as the medium of GIS  defines the inhabitation of the world from one slant or subject, Berque asks us to embrace the multiple effects of mankind on the planet.

Berque believed that with the humanization of the planet complete, and the physical planet dominated by the effects of human life, more emphasis should be placed on a phenomenological analysis of the relation of subject an ambient by this Greek term, now removed from mapping practices to embrace human geography as a tool to consider the relation of man and his [made] environments. Putting aside the value of Berque’s point, the disposition of this philosophical standpoint  reflects the deconstruction of the privileged place of the terrestrial map and of geographic knowledge in GIS, and the image it perpetuates of the inscription of a human geography.  The relation of man and his planet–or the effects of man on the planet–are now the scope of a wide range of GIS maps of human habitation and Google Earth, or maps of influenza, infections and disease in data visualizations or geographic metadata catalogues, whose aim shift from physical geography to the place of mankind in it.  Increasingly, we are prepped to see the world nightly with a false immediacy of the nightly news, less focussed on territorial boundaries than a token of comprehensive coverage, prepped for consumption much as the newscasters who present an account of the “daily novelties” are prepped and outfitted in the apparatus of a news room.


Newscaster prepping.png.JPG


As put it eloquently (and cleverly) by Bruno Latour and friends, our ideas of territory so clearly derive from maps that the digital ubiquity of mapping places us into a new relation to territory:   we now navigate not based on “some resemblance between the map and the territory but on the detection of relevant cues . . .  to go through a heterogeneous set of datapoints” by which to move from different posts to gain new bearings.  We are always navigating a new relation to territory, or understand territorial models, not assuming defined and predetermined boundaries.  This notion of the environment is based on an ability to read signs of its inhabitation and peopling, rather than with reference to previously mapped territories, and is rooted on the ability to navigate by using maps on a screen, rather than on paper–in which the lack of resemblance indeed has further purchase (and persuasive power) as a gain in both certainty and objectivity.


3.  The analytic nature of the reader’s relation to GIS maps is less based on embodying place or expanse in a cartographical manner, because it is not rooted in mimetic qualities.  For the map, in much GIS, is used essentially as the primary field to encrypt variations in data, and removed from any pictorially descriptive function.  Put better, the map is something of a found object, a template, an objective construction in which we sort out the real information that is displayed upon it in an appealingly objective fashion, but one that lacks an orientational power rooted in mimetic claims and indeed turns away from making any actual mimetic claims:



Indeed, the underlying positivism of the objectivity of the map is recycled in most visualizations that are rooted in GIS.  If modernity, as Doreen Massey put it, involved “a particular hegemonic understanding of the nature of space itself, and of the relation between space and society,” drawing expanse on multiple computational platforms in GIS has decoupled space from a precise location:  we now know from a true “view from nowhere.”  The differentiation of terrain or local constructions of space are of less interest than the projection of meaning on a map that is treated as a screen, and several significant local markers may be absent or not noted.  Shifting scale by moving a cursor does not create a more readable space, but provides a very odd reframing of space as a unit that is not comprehended by the reader, but able viewed simultaneously at multiple scales of changing parameters, zoomed into and out of, and adjusted on a digitized scale bar. Our current National Research Council argues in its spatial literacy report on spatial thinking that “the important thing is that they allow for the spatialization of data and use a range of types and amounts of data,” lending primacy to the readability of data over the analytic or representational basis of map-making.

What is physical geography, after all, in many of these maps?  The prime mandate is to map one’s relation to the environment in a readable fashion, rather than to encode layers of local topography or meaning, and to streamline the map to allow its reconfiguration in different datasets that prepare for readability, rather than granularity or density of meaning.  Again, this is based not in mimesis, and no longer based on the notion or mimetic projection of territory:


MacArthur Freeway 11-00

Children's Hospital 11-51

If we speed this up, to look at a sort of time-stop photography of cabs in San Francisco’s downtown area, as did Stamen design in a pioneering map that combined aesthetics and the abundant database of the surveillance operations of Google Maps, and is based on readings taken from the GPS data of the Yellow Cab Company of San Francisco, available also as a film:

Stamen Cabs

Or, in Shawn Allen’s map/photo, which resembles a direct transcription of the taxicab scene in downtown San Francisco on June 15, 2012:

Shawn Allen's map:photo

Does an impoverishment of spatial literacy or toponymy result from such containers of datasets that use maps as formats?  The omniscience and transcendence of the map viewer is immeasurably increased, but the viewer is the receptacle of data, as much as the perceiver of the scene:  new currents are configured and new flows revealed, as data from a variety of sources are richly encrypted into the surface of any given image, compressing the sort of media to which we might have access to a single screen.  One has a different sort of relation to a screen than to a variegated surface, reading a way of configuring information in different ways:  but the difficulty with the screen in particular is its lack of a sense of spatial embodiment. Compare it to an earlier map of the same region, not at all sparing with information but bending backwards to compress legible content within a description of the city’s environment:


These are, perhaps, essentially different modes of data compression, based not only on distinct tacit presumptions, with one angled toward data flows, rather than to the ostensible objectivity of a perceptual model.   But the difficulty to embody data flows can generate an oddly 2-D superficiality that forsakes the very quality transcendence to which earlier ecumene aspired.  Data-streams provide a selective mapping that illuminates one angle of analysis, as it were, rather than aspiring to process an image of the entire city’s or world’s actual inhabitation.

Let’s however insist on being more concrete.  When used to display shifts in a census, the map below displays data removed from topography or centers of population density, and is a data visualization without refined conventions to process its content or meaning for viewers, even if its meaning is quite serious and subject quite human, because it displays information on a static template with little interpretive key–since this map is less of an autonomous and self-standing unit of meaning than a map that demands to be read in reference to familiarity with a map of the distribution of the state’s population:

CO2 emissions


The above map of CO2 emissions of Northern California households elegantly foregrounds one specific reading of the relation of man to the environment. The challenge raised by such an elegant map is to retain communicative flexibility of the conventions of terrestrial mapping, however.  In any GIS map, there is the anger of emptying the format of project from content such as topographic variations, specific local detail, or the dynamic relations of space and habitation within a map:  the conventions of the format gains an iconic or symbolic register alone, in short, and is considerably impoverished as a description of terrestrial habitation when it serves as a field to display data flows or project a database.  One issue is to combine the data with how the analytic framework of the map integrates word and image or creates a structural distribution–something like the poetics of mapping–rather than employ maps as a passive container for spatial information instead of actively creating a way of thinking about space. The mapping of the results of a census regularly lack a sense of topographic variation or differentiation of urban and rural population which would render it more meaningful, and give a plasticity to its already remarkable contents as readable content.  This partly lies in the lack of a dynamic relation between the visual field of the map and its reading, as in this map of the regional variations in the India’s regional population per square kilometer:




The map does not exploit its own conventions of orienting readers to space or expanse.  But GIS mapping offers a significant range of angles by which to read and explain its content.  The relevance of clarifying readers’ relations to the environment are in fact pressing, as revealed on this interactive map–which even includes an option for the reader to learn in detail what s/he can do to help:


Scenarios of Global Warming


At the same time as this pessimistic picture of the actual eventualities of climate change in the age of the anthropocene, the radically shifting nature of a world which is no longer shaped by proximity, or challenged by distance.  The map of internet penetration suggests, rather than a new map of inequalities alone, the new obstacles to the penetration and responses to messages worldwide, and, no doubt, contributed to the difficulty of the transport of needed goods and medical supplies to western Africa during the current epidemic of Ebola, which seems to have left populations scarred by the difficulty in transatlantic communication, as much as the lack of adequate maps, as OSM-H has shown, of adequate mapping on the ground.




Indeed, the map of internet penetration, for all its unpleasant echoes of a colonializing perspective, where first-world countries receive greatest coverage, reveals the extreme difficulties of penetration of all of the coastal countries of West Africa–unlike Nigeria–where the highly contagious virus has proved most difficult to be contained, and information about  the virus less able to be widely disseminated.

Are the edges of the penetration of the internet the most vulnerable edges of the inhabited world, and as the edges of the accessibility and sharing of human information the most vulnerable to cataclysm?


4.  To some extent, this takes us back to Berque’s notion of the ecumene.  But the relative thin-ness of encrypting data projection on the map is so less fine-grained to impoverish the relation between reader and map or registers of engaging readers:  the granularity of the map is particularly great perhaps because the map’s visual qualities are less closely joined with its textual ones, or the hypertext only uses the map as a static schema. There seems the danger of how maps direct our attention to spatial variations and complexity with the proliferation of maps as visual media across different venues and platforms, and a dissipation of the authority of demarcating expanse or of compacting data in a uniform surface.  Perhaps this recalls Berque’s notion of the ecumene as a set of relations to the environment, which can be read in different ways rather than in one way.

The question of habitation has become turned, like a prism, to illuminate new points of view and angles of perception, a topography of habitation indeed seems beside the point.  After all, there are no real areas of the globe that are not inhabited, and the questions of orienting individuals to space seem more pressing than ever on ethical, ecological, and moral grounds alike–if not of just making sense of the effects with which man inhabits space. In a somewhat ponderous post, let’s offer a comic conclusion, however, rather than carping about media for mapping in an age of digital reproduction and increasing vectors of data flow.  The GIS map has become a versatile demographic tool to reframe questions and reveal spatial links, possible vectors of influence or pathways of causation, and indeed maps of emotions or violence.  The question is at root what sort of remove it places the map reader to interpret those vectors on its surface.  There is a temptation to deflate the authority of the descriptive value of such a matrix for its lack of fine grain.  Amidst the attempt to map the Arab Spring there was the inevitable  GIS irony of naturalizing political movements with the ephemerality of a weather map–more a mental map of what the media presented, to be sure, rather than a map designed to orient its content to a reader practiced in interpreting a map’s construction or its conventions.  The map has the value for its viewers of an illusion of transparency and a medium of omniscience:





Or GIS-inspired variations on sabre-rattling from the American right, which was openly alarmist (if not antic) in tone, against a backdrop from Wikipedia commons:




These pseudo-news maps come from the GIS family of signs, even if they are not based on actual data.  They orient viewers with a wiki-like remove. It makes sense that at this point ecumene denotes more of an ethical stance to describe man’s relation to the environment, shifting from to what that process of inhabitation might mean; there is no demand for graphically rendering the inhabited world, but rather the ways mankind inhabits the earth and has filled and marked its space.  But there is a loss of mapping habitations. And so map making in the flexible media of GoogleMaps is no longer an expandable portmanteaux of fine grain, but rather a matrix of data streams where one charts multiple consequences of inhabitation rather the local terrain.  If we no longer have Sciopods outside of our human realm, we lose a sense of an ethics of mapping or even of relating to maps when we dispense altogether with practices of map-making.

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Filed under anthropocene, data visualizations, globalism, Google Maps, metageography, Ptolemaic geography