Mapping Maybe

by Moacir P. de Sá Pereira

What is unprecedented is not the loss of a home but the impossibility of finding a new one… [This is] a problem not of space but of political organization.1

This could only have ever been an instance of what Lauren Berlant calls “genre flailing,” of what it is that we do in a crisis. Why am I on this team? Why am I helping build this site? Because its nimbleness, its speed, its improvisation plays at papering over the cracks that crisis creates. Because I, we, everyone has to do something. We don’t even know what we’re against, exactly, we just know that we feel its presence; it perturbs us.

Yet this is the crisis that has been the crisis that has been the crisis. For all the blockades put up and regimens instituted to prevent the tearing apart of norms, it had to be this way.

Working through Hannah Arendt’s “The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man,” Giorgio Agamben notes that “refugees… put the originary fiction of modern sovereignty into crisis.”2 The visualizations here generate a challenge to the rhetoric of the wall, where a fixation on determining who is in and who is out produces both chilling multimodal reports of a government doing what needs to be done to respect the distinction and the continued fantasy that such determination is even possible while also granting people “inalienable rights.”

Are these concentration camps? In the original camps, “a state of emergency linked to a colonial war [was] extended to an entire civil population,” abstracted to defining the camp as “the space that is opened when the state of exception begins to become the rule.”3 The camp, then, as the “fundamental biopolitical paradigm of the West,” in its mere presence reaffirms the permanence of the state of exception.4 This state of exception predates November 8, 2016, after all, despite the desire to talk of ICE’s infection of the American body, springing up like uninvited pimples all over our national face after a recent, mistaken, gluttonous pizza dinner doing business as a presidential election.5

An Ivy League English professor asks Twitter, “Who will write the political theory of mass exhaustion?” as a result of personally feeling “particularly exhausted” by the historical now. I think about the exhausted bodies unable to cross borders with ease. About those who can’t afford TSA Pre✓®, without even considering the price of a plane ticket, or a visa, or a passport… The bodies that accumulate exhausting weight on disintegrating frames as the inability to move unperturbed through national lines leaves them separated from their loved ones. The bodies that, even should they end up in the US, tire and creak under an oppressive labor regime, under an oppressive state always seeing the bodies, always surveilling. Each glance, each moment of becoming a morsel in the state’s insatiable data-collection maw adds to the weight on the body. More exhaustion. Then there are the bodies that literally die of exhaustion because of the logic of the nation-state.

Flailing itself, of course, exhausts. Can it be otherwise? Yet… maybe this time. Maybe this coalition. Maybe this action. This heavy wall isn’t see through, meaning we don’t know what might be thrown over it, but we also don’t even know what’s beyond it.

The exhausted body is also the particularized body, denied the unmarked transcendence of universality. Johanna Drucker calls for “humanistic methods” when we use visual forms to produce knowledge, pointing to how John Snow’s data visualization of the Broad Street cholera outbreak of 1854 flattens the deaths into mere dots. “Who are those dots,” asks Drucker, reminding us that “each dot represents a life, and no life is identical.”6

The visualizations here aim to heed Drucker’s call, and each one, hopefully, “produces the knowledge it draws,” even if that knowledge is more affective and intimate than we might expect from the knowledge-generating properties of the most effective visualizations.7 While Torn Apart / Separados has not presented many technical challenges, an underlying irony of the visualizations is that despite Google’s (or Esri’s, or NASA’s, or USGS’s, or whoever’s) God’s Eye, an Eye reproduced most explicitly in the visualization “The Eye,” the crisis, such as it is, emerged entirely because of the unseeable—or at least the previously unseen. The “conquering gaze” of the techno-monster, here to perform the “god-trick of seeing everything from nowhere” has failed us?8 Children’s being separated from parents happens daily without “our” knowledge; the black holes of the Office of Refugee Resettlement hide children crossing the border, both for their safety and for our own comfort. We don’t take on the weight of their sticky, obstacled steps through space.

The unknowing and uncertainty occasioned because of speed, because of a secretive government, because of concerns over children’s safety, leave these visualizations in tenuous relationship to privacy. We see all, and we rely on that voyeurism to allow the leap into transcendence to imagine the role of ICE and other agencies involved in immigration as we gesture towards the ability to grasp the whole crisis at once. Not just we, of course, but The Washington Post and The New York Times have read the news last week and felt that immediate urge to map the problem: Where are the children? But as Arendt reminds us, the problem isn’t spatial; it’s political.

Veronica Sawyer, in the 1988 movie Heathers, chastises Heather McNamara for wanting “to become a statistic in U. S. Fucking A. Today,” adding that doing so is “about the least private thing” she can think of.9 The circumstances are different, but the tension is reproduced here. Every dot on Snow’s map is a life, is a loved one now gone. And yet put together, they’re generalized by the techno-monsters into statistics.

The rhetoric surrounding the American borders that are everywhere moves towards discussion of “dehumanization.” In referring to people eager to come to the United States, often (if not typically?) fleeing a political or economic situation launched or exacerbated by the United States itself, as an “infestation,” both points above glow like the dots on our maps. We render their lives bare (even though so are, increasingly, our own), and then we flatten them for printing in U. S. Fucking A. Today. Yet maybe this time.

Moacir P. de Sá Pereira (@muziejus) is Assistant Professor / Faculty Fellow of English at New York University.

  1. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1985), 293–294. 

  2. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 131. 

  3. Agamben, 166, 168–169. 

  4. Agamben, 181. 

  5. On zits, consider the unsettled persona looking to stop her own genre flailing through what Urayoán Noel calls Sandra Maria Esteves’s “organic poetics”: “I got up this morning to brush my teeth / and found seven new pimples on my face / The first pimple was green / had a picture of george washington / smiled at me a long time saying it was my friend / but when I squeezed it / it was full of war and blood.” Noel, In Visible Movement: Nuyorican Poetry from the Sixties to Slam (Iowa City, University of Iowa Press: 2014), 75–82 and Esteves, “Staring into the eye of truth,” in Yerba buena: dibujos y poemas (Greenfield Center, NY: Greenfield Review, 1980), 44. Note especially how crisis and the various modes of flailing themselves reproduce themselves in the persona’s body, on her face, while she looks below, to the humus, to ground and stop the flailing. For grounding in terms of geographical visualization, see LaDona Knigge and Meghan Cope, “Grounded Visualization: Integrating the Analysis of Qualitative and Quantitative Data through Grounded Theory and Visualization,” Environment and Planning A 31.11 (2006), 2021–2037

  6. Johanna Drucker, Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014), 136. 

  7. Drucker, 3. 

  8. Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: the Reinvention of Nature Donna Haraway (New York: Routledge, 1991), 188, 189. 

  9. Haraway’s Eye “fucks the world to make techno-monsters,” of course, but I prefer, optimistically, to think of ourselves as just getting screwed. But that’s for a different now.