Review: Allan Holtz, American Newspaper Comics: An Encyclopedic Reference Guide

Cover of Holt's "American Newspaper Comics"At $120 on Amazon, Allen Holtz’s 2012 American Newspaper Comics: Am Encyclopedic Reference Guide may well be the most expensive new book I’ve ever purchased. As someone who is working on a dissertation on early newspaper comics, however, it’s an invaluable resource, and worth every penny.

The book is the first of its kind: a well-researched guide to the publishing history of virtually every recurring comic strip or panel to have a run in a general-audience American newspaper, published with the imprimatur of a respected university press. This is no small task, however, and the book has the heft you might imagine: it’s over six hundred 8.5×11″ pages of pure text– that’s right, there are no illustrations. The price of reproducing images would have been prohibitive both in terms of the book’s size (it’s already a bit heavy to carry around) and its price. Instead, over three thousand example illustrations are packaged in a PDF on a CD-Rom that comes with the book.

While six-hundred-plus pages of pure text is not what one might expect from most books on comics, it works well: this is a reference book, straight up, with very little interpretation or editorializing. One doesn’t so much “read” this book, as one uses it. Illustrations, while they would certainly given the book visual appeal, would have only been distracting. It’s best to think of this volume as a database in print form. And thinking of it as such, this book is a pleasure to use.

Let’s say you were interested in finding information about “Musical Mose,” an early, short-lived strip that lampooned the notion of racial “passing” by “Krazy Kat” cartoonist George Herriman– himself a man of African-American decent who was passing, in certain circles, as white. Looking it up alphabetically, it’s on page 281, which takes you from “The Muggles” to “Mutt and Jeff.” Holtz’s approach is minimalist, but highly informative:

4409 • Musical Mose. Sunday strip. Running dates: Feb 16-Feb 23 1902. Creator: George Herriman. Syndicate: New York World. Notes: An earlier untitled strip featuring the same character, but named Sam, appeared on 1/19/1902. Sources: Ken Barker in StripScene #12 except 1/19/02 info from Cole Johnson.

George Herriman's "Musical Mose" was a strip about a black musician who constantly found himself, despite deft musicianship, unable to ingratiate himself to the ethnic immigrant audiences he played to. Herriman was himself of African-American decent.
George Herriman’s “Musical Mose” was a strip about a black musician who constantly found himself, despite deft musicianship, unable to ingratiate himself to the ethnic immigrant audiences he played to. Herriman is believed to himself  have been of African-American decent, and to have “passed” as white.

While we don’t get an exploration of the themes of the strip or how it reflects on Herriman’s own life story, we do get a lot of good data: given that it was a Sunday strip, we know that there are only three known episodes of “Musical Mose,” and have the dates to find them.

We know that the strip was by George Herriman, who fans of old comic strips would immediately associate with “Krazy Kat,” and possibly “The Dingbat Family,” a domestic comedy that “Krazy Kat” began as topper gags to. However, upon flipping to the (somewhat awkwardly titled) “Index of Credits,” the user will find thirty-eight different Herriman titles that can be found in the book, from the wonderfully titled “Major Ozone’s Fresh Air Crusade” to “Mutt and Jeff,” which we learn, flipping back to the entry for that strip, Italian comics historian Alberto Becattini asserts Herriman provided some ghost work and assists on.

Finally, by going to the invaluable “Index of Syndicates,” we can find other strips that ran in Pulitzer’s New York World, and by looking at those, we can find what strips were contemporary with “Mose.” Moving back and forth while exploring various cartoonists’ works, getting a feeling for various features syndicates’ preferred types of strips, etc., an interested researcher can definitely get lost in this book.

Holtz has established his knowledge of the field in his blog, Stripper’s Guide, for years, and the book has special characters next to any strip discussed in the blog, as well as one for strips represented in the illustration CD-ROM. His blog becomes a very valuable supporting resource, with more details about the topics of strips, biographies of cartoonists, and the like. I find myself using this book with my Nexus 7 tablet next to it, as I’m constantly wanting to see what else I can find. (The future of books isn’t e-books, it’s reading with a divice in the other hand…)

While it’s superbly well-researched and a pleasure to use, it is not without problems. Putting all the illustrations on a CD-ROM works well, but putting them all in a single PDF with no labels or metadata makes using the CD-Rom unnecessarily difficult. Holtz’s choosing to only include comics from general audience newspapers makes sense on one hand, as small trade papers and other marginal newspapers are not as well-documented or well-preserved, and had lower readership.

Mr Block was an anarcho-syndicalist IWW strip, where the eponymous main character represented the "block-headedness" of politically moderate AFL and CIO workers. Strips like these reached out to workers while making specific cultural claims about what was "common sense."
Mr Block was an anarcho-syndicalist IWW strip, where the eponymous main character represented the “block-headedness” of politically moderate AFL and CIO workers. Strips like these reached out to workers while making specific cultural claims about what was “common sense.”

However, the use of comic strips was an important way for more marginal presses like foreign langage newspapers and labor papers to try to integrate themselves into the mainstream. While the Spokane Industrial Worker wasn’t necessarily a mainstream paper, it was doing something specific by including the Mr. Block cartoons, and the book feels the poorer for their absence. (And one could argue that the Joe Hill song by the same name points to the strips cultural relevance, even if it was a limited-audience relevance.)

My biggest critique of the book isn’t so much a problem with the Holtz’s book itself as the inherent limitations of books generally. Books have some great qualities: they have long shelf lives, they’re not dependent on changing technical specifications, they can work with only ambient solar power (in other words, you can stand by a window and read), and they’re just generally extremely stable. And this is all good– indeed, I’m quite glad that this research was published in book form, as the research in it will be useful for scholars for years. However, this is all ongoing research. There are people– the author included– still constantly scouring old newspapers and microfilm for new finds.

Holtz has been working online for years now, and he is very open to the post-publication peer review that the internet does so well. In fact, at the end of the book’s conclusion, he includes his email address and mailing address, in case readers should have corrections, comments, feedback. And this trait makes me trust Holtz as a researcher. But unless this volume goes into multiple revised volumes over the years, oversights are going to be permanent.

Here’s one example that also points to the shortcomings of a physical book: Holtz was alerted to at least one more Musical Mose strip last year, clearly after the book had gone into editorial review but (I believe) before it was published. While on the internet an author can share this discovery with their audience and the record is improved, there’s no post-publication corrections for a physical book.

Is this a glaring inaccuracy in the book? No. It’s a single oversight, a single strip missed. There will inevitably be problems like this in any reference book so exhaustive. But it’s not nothing, either. This is a very early strip, thematically very important to some key biographical questions about the author– and George Herriman is one of the most universally artistically acclaimed newspaper comic artists in history. If Holtz’s blog ever goes down, some key information might be lost.

Again, I’m glad that this information was published as a book. I grew up reading comics collections and comics history reference guides at my local public library– that was one of the things that got me so interested in studying history. Libraries and comics researchers should definitely purchase this volume– no book is ever perfect, but this one is amazingly well-done. However, having said that, I can’t help but hope that the University of Michigan Press will see its way to producing a second, electronic volume of this book, one that could be periodically updated and available to research libraries and other institutions for a one-time fee or an affordable subscription rate. More scans of strips could be made available, especially early work that’s in the public domain. Holtz’s “Strippers Guide” columns could be linked within, as well as other bloggers or writers that he and the editorial staff might feel could contribute.

This is possibly the best reference book on comics history I have ever encountered, but an online comics reference database could do so many things that the book cannot.


Chris Anderson’s “Free” isn’t Perfect, But I Think He’s Right (Part 2)

In my last post, I covered mostly the “Free isn’t perfect” part. So here’s why I think he’s right:

While I think that Anderson overstated the whole “Free as a business model” thing at the expense of what I think are the far more interesting and radical implications of Free, I think he’s dead right about Free. Free is a reality that businesses will need to contend with, and businesses that find ways to use it to their advantage will thrive; while those that refuse to do so will have to face the fact that you compete with zero cost without offering zero cost, you’ll lose every time. Allow me to illustrate with a quotation and a story from my own life:

Talking about a hypothetical glossy monthly magazine, Anderson explains…

It can typically be obtained in several different ways. You can read it online for free, in a somewhat stripped-down form… Or you can just buy one issue of the magazine on the newsstand for, say, $4.95. Or you can subscribe and get a year (twelve issues) for as little as $10, which is 83 cents per issue, delivered right to your door. Where do those three prices– $0, $4.95, and $0.83– come from?

Anderson then explains that the free web service is based on a combo of negligible hosting cost combined with ad revenue. The newsstand price is the cost of printing, plus a dollar or two profit for both the printer and the newsstand. And the subscription price is determined by an odd sort of set of calculations. The magazine is really ad-supported. But the ads are devalued if the publication is free. In addition, readers are less likely to actually get the subscription and read the magazine if the magazine is free. The ten dollars is as close to free as it can be (to get people to subscribe by making the low price an incentive) without making the magazine seem to be worth less to readers and advertisers.

Any company whose product can be delivered digitally will eventually be competing with someone giving it away for free. But if you add the Free model to your stable of strategies, it will work in synergy with the non-free elements of your business. To whit:

A week or two ago I was at Baltimore Penn Station waiting for a train. I went to the newsstand and picked up a copy of Wired. I hadn’t read the magazine in a while, and the cover stories looked interesting. I read it, and it was good. Really good. (Pick up this month’s copy of Wired if you haven’t– the cover article on the new netiquette is worth the cover price.)

Reading Wired reminded me, the next day, that Free should be out by now. I’d been wanting to read it since I’d read Anderson’s first blog post on the topic. So I looked on Amazon. It was thirty bucks, and only available in hardback. I’m a bit strapped for cash, given that summer means no assistantship, etc.

So, given the concept of the book, I wagered I could find the book– somewhere– for free. I found iTunes’s free audiobook deal, and downloaded it, listening to it over the next few days.

While listening to the book, and enjoying and being interested in it, I thought about it and realized that I’d really enjoyed the last issue of Wired, and felt I ought to give Chris Anderson some money for the free book, so I decided to check the subscription price for Wired. Looking on Amazon, I found it was only ten bucks. So I bought a subscription. And while I wasn’t crazy about the book, I figure it deserves a place in my New Media minor field’s reading list, so I’ll be picking up a copy of it one of these days, probably when it becomes available in softcover.

So that’s the story of how a free audiobook hooked me into multiple profit streams for Chris Anderson.

Free seems to be an effective business strategy, at least in his hands.


Chris Anderson’s “Free” isn’t Perfect, But I Think He’s Right. (Part 1)

I downloaded Chris Anderson’s Free: The Future of a Radical Price from iTunes this weekend. (And I downloaded it for free, naturally.)

I was a fan of The Long Tail. It wasn’t always spot on, it was a simplification, and it definitely didn’t fit with a lot of my more “scholarly” reading, but I think it was a good book, and it really pointed to a significant change in the current information age.

Free, on the other hand?

I’m a little less taken with Free.

It’s not that I find fault with his primary premise– that as marginal costs come closer and closer to zero with the digital delivery of content, the only way to stay ahead of the curve is to go to a Free model, and hope that the big numbers and market dominance you get from going to Free will allow you to monetize something else. That concept really seems fundamentally solid.

My problem, actually, lies with many of the negative Amazon reviews being right. (I don’t remember the last time that I’ve had that particular promise– usually, I read one-star Amazon reviews in order to fuel my reading, as an ignorant nutball reading that my reading of the text needs to avoid and, indeed, counter.)

When you look at most of the negative reviews, you see a common criticism: what Anderson keeps expounding as new and revolutionary is really just the same-old, same-old. It’s bait and switch, loss leaders, the ad-based media model… Fundamentally, what Anderson is describing is a model that was created in the late nineteenth century and perfected in the first half of the twentieth.

Which is not to say that I agree with these pooh-pooh-ers. I think there is a fundamental change here. I think that, as long as it’s something that can be produced and distributed digitally, we’re approaching the point where there is such a thing as a free (virtual) lunch. It’s just that Anderson is downplaying the places where “Free” is the most revolutionary– and the most free– namely, piracy and the gift economy.

Very little (virtual or otherwise) ink gets used in this book describing the amazing amount of work that volunteers put in for dev and testing communities for things like Linux distros and the Mozilla family–purely for for the good of the community and a better end product for them as users. Little to-do is made about the rather revolutionary nature of (so-called) digital piracy, the only form of “theft” ever invented that deprives the original maker only of an opportunity, not of any property.

Instead, Anderson’s book is all about how to monetize Free.

On the one hand, this is one of the biggest questions of the current digital age. Everybody insisted that there was no “there” there when Google offered its IPO, that a business model based primarily on Free was obviously and completely doomed. But five years later, the company’s 2004 price seems like a smarter investment than ever. I would expect nothing less from the editor-in-chief of Wired.

But when you talk about how to monetize Free, it inevitably comes about that what you’re really talking about isn’t “free” Free, but “kinda” Free.

But Chris Anderson knows what side his bread is buttered on: he’s going to stick to the part of Free that’s going to appeal to and sell to people in business. Not because it’s the more interesting question, but because, well, they’re the ones with the money.

On page 98 of the book, Anderson writes:

Information that can be replicated and distributed at a low marginal cost wants to be free; information with high marginal costs wants to be expensive. So you can read a copy of this book online (abundant, commodity information) for free, but if you want me to fly to your city and prepare a custom talk on Free as it applies to your business, I’ll be happy to, but you’re going to have to pay me for my (scarce) time.

So if you own a Fortune 500 company, and you’re interested in finding out how Free can benefit your company, please— pay Mr. Anderson’s exorbitant-seeming speaker fees. You’ll be absorbing a hidden cost by doing so:

He wrote this book, rather than a far more interesting one, for the sake of you and your colleagues. So go support him, before he starts rethinking this whole free thing and I have to pay for access to old Wired articles.


The Cold War and the Militarization of the Academy

It is a widely-discussed problem within higher education that the current job market is, to say the least, a difficult one. Universities are creating fewer and fewer tenure-track positions, relying on adjuncts, graduate students, and limited-term visiting professors for a growing share of the teaching load. Many if not most disciplines produce more PhDs than there are academic jobs to be filled. Public Universities in most states face the constant threat of reduced funding. One of the primary reasons for this state of affairs can be traced directly to the first fifteen years or so of the Cold War. In the years between World War II and 1960, the United States government began a massive and unparalleled investment in higher education, through grants, endowments, and the GI Bill, in order to promote its anti-Soviet agenda. The beginning of Perestroika and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, then, created a problem for American academics—the US university system had grown, over fifty years of federal investment for Cold War aims, to a point that was unsustainable without continued levels of funding. But when the specter of Communism was no enough to justify previous levels of spending, disinvestment began, and as is the case with most large, bureaucratic systems, the American university system was slow to react and adapt.

Three books that look at different disciplines in the years between 1945 and 1960, Jessica Wang’s American Science in an Age of Anxiety, Paul Edwards’s The Closed World, and Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream, all point to the unprecedented tremendous investment made by the federal government at that time. Looking at the level to which the academy was, in effect, militarized in order to advance the Cold War cause, it becomes quickly apparent why this level of subsidizing academe would become unsustainable after the end of the Cold War.

Jessica Wang’s excellent American Science in an Age of Anxiety is a history of atomic scientists in the latter half of the 1940s. Wang’s account shows that there was a considerable level of initial trepidation among at least certain circles of atomic scientists about the increasing role of the federal government funding atomic research, fearing “that military patronage would adversely affect the content and character of physics research.” (38) A particularly clear expression of this fear can be found in Eugene Rabinowitz’s editorial “Science, a Branch of the Military?” in the 1946 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which worried about the subordination of scientific research to military goals, the suppression of traditional scientific exchange in the interest of national security, and the impression that such a relationship could give to the rest of the world that the US was determined to continue military buildup and pursue aggressive foreign policies. (39-40) Even further, some scientists initially argued that control and regulation of atomic technologies was too dangerous to be left in the hands of military-governmental bodies at all, and should rather be handled by an international body of dispassionate scientists committed to civilian applications of nuclear technologies.

Such dissenting voices to the direction of US atomic policy were functionally silenced within the scientific community within five years, however, due in large part to scrutiny and sometimes persecution in the name of domestic anti-communism by federal organizations, most notably the FBI and the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The post-World War II Red Scare had a profound chilling effect on dissident atomic scientists, Wang argues, by splitting the left into two camps—left anticommunists, who put practicality and spectacles of patriotism ahead of ideals in order to maintain their position in the middle of anticommunist paranoia, and the progressive left, who were most often silenced by anticommunist persecution, and often faced tragic consequences when they refused to be silenced.

Beyond the “stick” of blacklisting and persecution, Wang also notes the powerful role of the “carrot” of scientific research funding. While many of the top atomic research facilities were governmentally-founded organizations or semiautonomous institutes dependant on military and federal funding, many other institutes were associated in some way with America’s top universities. Looking at a 1947 FBI memo on the loyalties of various chapters of the Federation of American Scientists, one quickly notices that along with military/industrial centers like Los Alamos and Northern California, many other chapters were located in the cities that were home to some of the US’s top research universities, including Cambridge, Ithaca, and Rochester. (65) Beyond simply funding research institutions, the government also invested in individual students of promise: the Atomic Energy Commission’s fellowship program, for example, “awarded grants to almost five hundred young physicists, biologists, and medical researchers in 1948 and 1949. At the time, it was the largest program for advanced science education in the nation’s history…” (220) By 1950, the prerequisites for the fellowship included a loyalty oath and an affidavit denying ties to the Communist Party. The federal government in this way attempted to assure that the top researchers of the next generation would be properly ideologically vetted and screened while still in training.

    While focusing more on the “carrot” of funding than the “sticks” of anticommunism, Paul Edwards’s The Closed World illustrates the profound impact of the militarization of the academy on scientific research far more varied than Wang’s atomic scientists. Edwards argues that Eisenhower’s notion of a “military-industrial complex” overlooks the important role of the academy in the military, technological, and scientific buildup of the Cold War, preferring an “’iron triangle’ of self-perpetuating academic, industrial, and military collaboration.” (47)

Two aspects of this collaboration he pays particular attention to are research in computers and psychology. While early research into computers was certainly driven by military funding and researchers, as well as corporate players like IBM and Bell Labs, universities like MIT and Harvard were integral in early developments in computer science. Many researchers moved back and forth between private, governmental, and academic research positions. Like atomic energy, the military uses of computers are immediately obvious and it is perhaps not surprising that the federal government would invest large amounts of money into such projects. However, Edward’s discussion of the funding of psychological research yields somewhat surprising numbers. In the years between 1941 and 1960, the American Psychological Association’s membership grew from 2,600 to 12,000.  During World War II, the majority of its membership worked on war-related research, and half of all professional psychologists were employees of the federal government. (177) The government was interested in the uses of psychology for everything from propaganda and public opinion to finding better ways to regulate and control military personnel. Moreover, as Edwards makes quite clear, there was a lot of overlap between some of the earliest developers of computers and information theory and some of the most influential psychologists of the time.

The militarization of the military was not limited to the sciences, however. While his classic That Noble Dream chronicles around a hundred years of the historical profession, Peter Novick’s discussion of historians in the wake of the Cold War bears mention here. Novick notes that there was a sharp rise in diplomatic history in the years immediately following World War II. (305) Moreover, while “private philanthropic organizations… provided initial funding for most of these ventures… as the academic cold war became institutionalized, a program of official government grants became established, mostly under one or another ‘national defense’ rubric.” (310) This new influx of money and interest led to the creation of integrated area studies programs throughout America—twenty-nine had been created by 1950, and by 1965, that number had grown to 153. (310) While the research that came out of these diplomatic histories and area studies programs tended to reflect a strong interest in the narrative of the US as the Free World, diametrically opposed by the Totalitarianism of the Soviet Union, the perception of the field from within was one of absolute objectivity, of history as an account of Truths about the past.

Moreover, another element beyond the investment in the institutions and members of the academy that the federal government was the massive investment in tuitions for many who came back from World War II and later Korea under the GI Bill—according to the Department of Veteran Affairs, GI Bill veterans made up almost half of all college students in 1947, and ultimately, 7.8 out of 16 million veterans of the World War had taken part in education or training programs under the bill.  Such a large infusion of students helped to create demand for a large number of positions throughout higher education, meaning that even academics working outside areas of direct military interest.

Jessica Wang has noted that many scientists, in reaction to the post-Cold War drawback in research funding, are more likely to rail against postmodernist critics of science and general public ignorance than to look back to the historical trends that have created this situation. (290) But what she doesn’t comment on is whether or not this federal and military disinvestment in higher education after the end of the Cold War has put the American academy in an untenable situation. Did the infusion of so much money over half a century artificially inflate the size and number of postsecondary institutions to the point where they cannot structurally adjust to this lessening of funding? How can we maintain—or even responsibly reduce, while maintaining the primary benefits of—the previous levels of research in this new age? America has become a leading exporter of the educated—the number of foreign students coming to the States for an education is higher than ever—but if the primacy in academics that this is built on was the result of Cold War funding, will this disinvestment engender a decrease in the prestige of American higher education—or even of America itself?  Even with a war going on the GI Bill—now the Montgomery GI Bill—is nowhere near what it was in the middle of the twentieth century. Veterans coming back from the Middle East won’t be flooding into our institutions of higher learning on the government’s tab, meaning not only that the money the GI Bill represented won’t be there, but neither will the talent that it provided.

It is perhaps possible that, in framing the “War on Terror” as a generational conflict, the current administration has created a discourse that could serve to frame military and federal funding into higher education once again, but that is uncertain at best, and one cannot in good conscience hope for an outcome that relies on so much potential for human suffering.  All one can say for sure is that this is a discussion that needs to be continued and expanded, and that the history of this phenomenon and its ties to Cold War military spending should be a larger part of the broader public discourse on the topic, as it is so intrinsic to what is at stake.


“Bugs” and Blowback: Science and American High Modernism

American policy with regard to science and technology in the twentieth century had often been canceled with what James C. Scott described in Seeing Like a State as a “high modernist ideology”: “…self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature… and, above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws.” (Scott, 4) Implicit in Scott’s “mastery of nature” is one other important characteristic that he doesn’t spell out: the high modernist ideology takes previous modes of human interaction among people and with nature, and reduces these interrelations to zero-sum games. Under the ideological régime of high modernism, war becomes total war, health care shifts its focus from palliative care, abatement, and curing, to the wholesale elimination of specific ailments. Edmund Russell’s War & Nature and David McBride’s Missions for Science both explore American scientific policies that reflect this high modernist tendency toward extermination and elimination, as well as looking at the blowback from such an approach.

The concept of blowback originated within foreign policy and espionage circles. Essentially, the term describes when a completed operation, whether successful or not in achieving its intended goals, creates a situation that engenders unexpected negative outcomes for the original actor. While the term isn’t used much in scholarly work outside foreign policy, I believe it’s the best description of what we see in both books. Technologies were adopted for specific purposes, and were in some case effective and in some case ineffective. But in almost all cases, these technologies have unforeseen or unforeseeable consequences.

The narrative structure of Russell’s War and Nature fits nicely with this model of techno-political blowback to high modernist zero-sum tactics. Russell traces the coevolution of chemical-based warfare and pesticides in the period between the first World War and the early 1960s. (I use the term chemical-based weapons or warfare, rather than chemical weapons, as Russell’s definition includes more than conventional chemical weapons, to including incindiaries and potentially battlefield defoliants.) As both technologies were based on the development of new toxic chemicals, sometimes even the same chemicals, chemical manufacturers were able to rapidly shift from wartime to peacetime production, rapidly expanding in the process. Moreover, pesticides were seen as important to war efforts, as insect-borne contagion could be as dangerous to troops on the ground as mortar shells.
In looking at the language used in describing both chemical-based weapons and pesticides, Russell finds a common language of extermination and elimination.

The language used to describe chemical weapons reflects the general principle of total war. Moreover, he finds repeated use of the trope of equating enemy troops with bugs or insects, and calling for extermination. When looking at the language of insecticide advertisements and propaganda, he finds the converse—metaphors of war on insects, and the diseases that come with them. Government etymologists called for an outright war on the blight of insects, saying that nothing short of their complete elimination could ensure the survival and progress of the human species. In both of these examples, as well as tactics used “on the ground,” as it were, we find an overarching philosophy that the only solution for the problem of insects or enemy combatants was complete elimination—the type of zero-sum thinking that is inherent to high modernist ideology.

The final chapter of Russell’s book, however, is all about the blowback effect. The publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 brought about a backlash against the widespread use of DDT, which had in the years since World War II been widely promoted as a safe insecticide, advertised both for its safety for users and its military prestige—it had been a key insecticide used by the American military during the war. Carson’s book promoted the idea that the chemical was environmentally disastrous and a carcinogen that was unsafe for home use. The chemical was banned within ten years of the book’s publication. 

Around the same time, public opinion toward the military use of chemicals began to shift. While the US chemical industry was miniscule before the first World War, it had grown quite rapidly, and was now a key component of the “military-industrial complex” that Eisenhower warned about in his farewell address. By 1963, the use of chemical-based warfare was becoming a major point of contention in the escalating US presence in Vietnam. Those who opposed the war would point to the use of defoliants, and later napalm, as indication that the war had gone too far, had become too barbaric, while some on the right argued that the use of all-out chemical warfare would be the most efficacious way to decisively gain advantage in the war.

At around the same time, both chemical-based warfare and mass use of insecticide were suddenly met with a mass of public disapproval, after almost fifty years of being positively associated with US dominance as an international power.

David McBride’s Missions for Science deals with the impact of US scientific and technological interventions in four areas with Black Diaspora populations. In Haiti, Liberia, the US “Black Belt,” and the Panama Canal Zone, McBride chronicles the way that American scientific and technological interventions served the purpose of expanding US imperialism and hegemony. Regional leaders like William Tubman, Booker T. Washington, and “Papa Doc” Duvalier, often shared the faith in the high modernist ideology expressed by outsiders leading US intervention. But while the goal of expanding US imperialism, the hopes for the power of science and technology improving the lives of those in the affected areas often failed, sometimes catastrophically. Public health efforts in the Panama Canal Zone were initially effective, but those leading failed to continue with further, more far-reaching, measures. Technical education in the Black Belt failed to change the underlying disparity in the social and political makeup in the area.

The best illustration of the blowback against high modernist intervention is Haiti. In Haiti, you have all four elements that Scott describes as necessary to the creation of a full-on disaster of social engineering—the administrative reordering of society, high modernist ideology, an authoritarian state, and a prostrate civil society incapable of effective resistance. In Haiti, when the US took over the administration of the state in 1915, their public health efforts actually did much to upset the existing structure of medical care, while their efforts to eradicate epidemic diseases on the island were ultimately unsuccessful. By the time the US pulled out, the population was still impoverished, and suffered high disease rates. “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who began his career as a doctor and made a name for himself in the mass administration of penicillin, came of age in this period, and was educated according to US high modernist principles of medicine. In the case of Haiti, the blowback from high modernist scientific intervention not only included the destruction of a health care system more adequately suited to palliative care and abatement in an unsuccessful attempt at eradication of disease, but also included helping to create the ideology of a man who became a corrupt autocrat whose reign of terror greatly increased the suffering of the people that those intervening had originally intended to help.

There is a fundamental fallacy in the high modernist faith belief in zero-sum games, when it comes to science and technological intervention. Social intervention of this type cannot take into account all the variables—future discovery, the wisdom of existing social structures, and the inability of social engineering to account for the complexity of such structures—it is impossible to verify that a strategy is a zero-sum game when one cannot account for all the players, the rules, or the changes that may occur with future research. So it’s quite possible that blowback is inevitable.

However, both of these books reflect what strikes me as a rather wise ambivalence toward scientific intervention. On one hand, there are many examples of this sort of blowback, with often disastrous consequences. On the other hand, certain scientific advances, especially in medicine, are so groundbreaking and present so much opportunity for the betterment of peoples lives that denying access to such medicines and technologies seems inhumane and immoral. It’s a complex question, but both of those books help to shed light on the difficulties and complexities, and will hopefully help to inspire further research and thought on the topic.


Herbert Hoover and the Corporatist State

One of those questions that Americanist grad students in History get asked a lot is, “What was new about the New Deal?”

At first it struck me as a pretty obvious question– of course EVERYTHING was new about the New Deal. That’s definitely the story I heard growing up… But when you look at it, things get murky– Hoover wasn’t the laissez faire capitalist he’s often made out to be. In fact, he was a proponent of an interventionist federal government. FDR outspent every president before him on social welfare, but Hoover outspent every president before HIM.

So looking to resolve the question, and looking into it a bit, I’ve come up with– well, at least a theory. Hoover was a corporatist and an associationalist. He was for intervention, but not for the type of big state programs that the New Deal ushered in. And when he needed big state programs, he didn’t like to leave their management in the hands of the state alone.

In his essay “Three Facets of Hooverian Associationalism” Ellis Hawley argues that Hoover, in his time as Secretary of Commerce and President, created a new approach to federal regulation with regard to “problematic” industries, one that he sees as an outgrowth of progressive associationalism. While earlier progressive associationalism had approached the regulation of industry by the bringing together of interest groups that had a stake in the industry, from management, labor, and consumers, Hoover’s regulatory approach to troubled industries was essentially corporatist—characterized by the rationalization of troubled industries by new governmental agencies that were headed by individuals within the industry. Hawley further argues that the definition of “problem” industries included not only industries in decline, but nascent industries whose primary “difficulty” was a failure to efficiently meet their full potential.  F. Robert van der Linden’s Airlines and Air Mail and Douglas Craig’s Fireside Politics, two books that draw on Hawley’s work, both bring this particular dynamic into much closer focus, looking at the new industries of commercial aviation and radio, respectively.

Robert van der Linden draws very directly on Hawley’s work, framing his book in its introduction as an expansion of “Three Facets.” (viii) Where Hawley’s article focused primarily on the role Hoover played in regulating commercial aviation as Secretary of Commerce, van der Linden expands upon this work, looking at the arguably far greater role played by Hoover’s Postmaster General in regulating and rationalizing the industry after the Watres Act. While the Watres Act was essentially an expansion of Federal authority—giving Brown almost unchecked authority over the young airline industry, which was still dependent upon government subsidy in the form of Air Mail contracts—the way he went about implementing this authority is an excellent illustration of Hoover’s corporatist approach to regulation of industry.

In the conference of airline operators held May 19, 1930—the notorious “spoils conference”—Brown used the powers given him by the Watres Act to bring together the heads of the top companies to discuss, and resolve by means of cooperation, how to best rationalize the airline industry. This meeting, while it stunk of collusion to many contemporaries, embodied Hooverian corporatism. The nascent industry was a “problem” industry because it was failing to reach its potential—commercial airliners were failing to gain the desired numbers of air travelers, routes weren’t standardized, and there was a level of competition which, in the estimation of Brown and the heads of the top carriers, was unhealthy for the young industry. Brown brought together industry leaders to force consensus on these and other issues. The goal, more than simply the negotiation of Air Mail payment rates, was fairly explicitly to reshape the industry itself to something more in keeping with Taylorist notions of rational industrial management. The result was vertical integration of the industry, fusing several of the largest players to create a tighter oligopoly, and the exclusion of small upstart players to benefit “competition” among the remaining three behemoths.

The back-door collusion of this meeting eventually led to scandal when Hugo Black began his investigation and Roosevelt’s Postmaster General James Farley revoked the Air Mail contracts and assigned the military the task of flying the mail. However, military aviation quickly proved unable to safely and efficiently perform the task, and Air Mail contracts were re-awarded to the big three airlines. Moreover, the consolidations that Brown had overseen remained, and the three airlines created out of this conference remained as the core of the industry for half a century.

While Hawley and van der Linden see Hooverian corporatist regulation of “problem” industries as springing directly from the earlier principle of progressive associationalism, Douglas Craig interprets it as resulting from a failure of associationalism. Craig argues that the radio conferences of the 1920s reflect a more pure associationist approach, bringing together various interest groups to help steer the direction of the industry with direct Federal intervention being held back to a minimum, primarily in the maintaining of the Radio Act of 1912. Taking a stricter definition of associationalism, he argues that it is only when this sort of interest-group consensus building failed under the weight of the rapidly growing industry that Hooverian corporatist regulation came into play with the Radio Act of 1927 and the creation of the Federal Radio Commission.

Under the Radio Act of 1912, regulation of radio fell under the Department of Commerce, and thus—through most of the 1920s—under Hoover. When Hoover announced in 1926 that radio would be subject only to voluntary self-regulation until congress passed new legislation better defining the government’s rights and responsibilities in regulating radio, it could be argued that after his loss in court to the Intercity Radio Company, he decided that the young radio industry had officially reached the point of being a “problem” industry, and thus required a shift in tactics, away from traditional associationalism and toward corporatism.

The FRC was a clear example of corporatist regulation. The commissioners often were men who had worked within the industry, and often went on to executive positions within the networks after leaving the FRC. Moreover, the FRC favored commercial networks over the noncommercial independent operators, often placing a greater burden of proof upon them with regard to their commitment to public interest. While the commissioners were more overtly given the right to do so in legislation than Brown had been with the airlines, the FRC was also similar in that it helped to directly shape the industry, apportioning and taking away licenses of operators. While some of this reshaping was done in response to political pressures asserted by outspoken politicians, as with the rewarding of licenses to Southern operators to the detriment of operators in the North and East, it was always done in a spirit of cooperation with the major networks, who were also given a disproportionate number of clear channels.

As with the airline industry, the Hoover-era act that created this corporatist alignment of Federal and oligopolies’ interests was replaced by a New Deal piece of legislation that had little net effect. In the case of the radio industry, it was the creation of the FCC in 1934. Craig argues that the new, larger commission had only minor, almost negligible differences from the FRC when it came to issues of radio broadcast.

Both books further our understanding of Hawley’s initial argument. Hoover was an associationalist, but when a new industry became “problematic,” either by growing too slowly like commercial airliners, or too quickly, as in the case of radio, he felt that a greater deal of state intervention and regulation was necessary. Rather than the direct state intervention preferred by New Dealers, Hoover’s solution was to create regulating bodies that would represent the interests of both the state and the most successful companies in the industry. The result in both cases was the creation of an oligopoly—a collection of the “big three” companies that would submit to government regulation, and in exchange, were given the lion’s share of the industry and an opportunity to participate in their own regulation.

The authors don’t necessarily agree, however, on the net effect of this pattern. Robert van der Linden seems to be a fairly enthusiastic advocate of Hooverian corporatism, refusing to see collusion in Brown’s “spoils conferences,” and indeed avoiding the words “spoils” or “scandal.” He makes a point of mentioning Black’s membership in the KKK, but avoids the topic of Ford and Lindberg’s Nazi sympathies. Despite his enthusiasm for Hoover’s policies, however, one doesn’t get the impression that he lets it effect the quality of his scholarship, even if it colors his treatment of the subject. Craig, on the other hand, seems to mourn radio’s lost potential, especially the possibility that American radio could have adopted the Australian/Canadian model of public and commercial radio—something that the US didn’t achieve until the Johnson administration.

However, both authors seem to agree on the lasting impact made by Hooverian corporatist regulation. Both books end in the Roosevelt era, with that administration making little impact on the overall structure of the industries as they were engineered under Hoover. The big three networks and two of the big three airlines are still dominant. The FCC is still around. And as much as some people evoke the lasting impact of FDR’s interventionist state, we can see shadows of Hoover’s corporatist model in the way the Federal Government regulates many industries today.


The (Il)legibility of Smoke

(Some more thoughts on two books I talked about in this post.)

James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State and David Stradling’s Smokestacks and Progressives, while tackling related topics, could not be more dissimilar in approach. Scott’s book is a sprawling history of a type of phenomenon—an account of different iterations of a problem that covers multiple continents and the entire modern era, using a strong theoretical base to tie seemingly unrelated events. Stradling, on the other hand, limits his scope, limiting his book to popular smoke abatement movements in the US between the 1890s and 1940s. Stradling’s book is virtually absent of any underlying theoretical base—his book is primarily a chronicle of the periodic and seemingly unrelated interruptions, upsets, and setbacks that the movement suffered over that time. Despite their widely divergent approaches and subject matter, the two books can be seen as working quite well in dialogue, each book shedding light on what may be perceived as deficiencies of the other.

Stradling’s book is an excellent chronicle of events, thoroughly researched, and gives the reader a good understanding of the history of the argument for the abatement of coal smoke. The question he often ignores, however, is why—why do the leaders of the movement for smoke abatement change over time, from progressive women’s organizations to public health experts to engineers? Why was the movement, in all its various forms, ultimately so unsuccessful—unable to abate coal smoke right up to the time that coal lost dominance and primacy as a source of fuel? Why were certain popular movements for abatement at least initially successful, while others were so quickly struck down by courts and local governments? Why were cities willing to manage sewage and drinking water, but unwilling to see smoke similarly, as a health concern that needed to be managed by governmental works and interventions? Where any answer to these questions can be found in Stradling’s account, they are singular, contingent, and local. Stradling demurs from proposing any great unifying themes that connect these events, or to give a systemic logic to it all.

This is where the strong theoretical basis of Seeing Like a State becomes a very useful tool in deepening one’s reading of Stradling. One of the key concepts in Scott’s book is that of “legibility.” As the needs and duties of the state become larger and more complex, the state necessarily begins rationalizing. The subject, the land, and the state’s resources all must be structured and reordered according to some rational method. In doing this, the state must put primacy on some things, and ignore others. Simplifications are born. The next logical step is to transform reality to more closely conform to the cartographic/statistical simplification, in order to better measure and increase efficiency. In examples from early scientific forestry to the reordering of land use within villages, Scott demonstrates that this pattern is reiterated as the modern nation state is born. Early scientific forestry purged the forests of elements that were not seen in terms of economic value, preferring single-crop forests where the trees were lined up like soldiers, and robbing the environment of necessary biodiversity. Land tenure patterns were completely reordered in order to make them more easily comprehensible from great distances—ensuring more accurate tax collections, perhaps, but also removing localized patterns that tended to be more diverse, productive, and sensitive to the local terrain.   

This is the process of the state rendering the illegible legible. Illegible groups, institutions, and patterns are localized, contingent, and lack uniformity, and are thus confounding to modern statecraft, which requires a large economy. The process of rendering legible—of simplifying, ordering, and making uniform—allows the state to rationally tax, assess, and predict its assets and its subjects. It is this process that is the essence of “seeing like a state.”

Of course, it’s not just states that see in this manner. In fact, Scott’s Yale colleague John Lewis Gaddis, in his book The Landscape of History, has noted that the process of simplification, rationalization, and rendering legible is actually quite close to the work of Historians. More to the point, any large organization or corporation must do essentially the same work in order to maximize profit or efficacy. In the era that Stradling is analyzing, the great industrial oligopolies of the time certainly sought to rationalize and make uniform the resources within their domain, including their employees. Frederick Winslow Taylor’s notion of Scientific Management is quite similar to early Scientific Forestry as Scott describes it. The movements of the bodies of workers, like the forests of eighteenth century Germany, were seen as unnecessarily complex and therefore wasteful. Taylorism was an attempt to rationalize the process of production, to simplify it. The worker was the subject of the corporation, almost as much as he was the subject of the state. And the gaze of both sought legibility.

We can see, then, that there were multiple “states” viewing the problem of coal smoke. While they have different and sometimes competing interests, they were united in a modality of seeing, in their inability to comprehend multifaceted complexity and preference for the legible. The problem of coal smoke in the progressive era into the 1940s, however, was multifaceted and complex. The propensity of the progressive women’s groups who began the campaign for smoke abatement to intermix health, ecology, economic cost, and quality of life concerns in their rhetoric, while it probably came closest to the complex truth of the issue, likely only served to undermine their arguments. Likewise, while it is always hard to put hard numbers to environmental health concerns, the disagreements among the medical community as to the effects of smoke on health, positive or negative, undercut the arguments of medical “experts” who took up the issue. In a particularly unfortunate irony, the discovery of the bacterial origin of tuberculosis seems to have been a blow to this movement that sought goals that would have only contributed to overall respiratory health. 

Looking at the issue of coal smoke like a state—or like a corporation—the maneuvers made to counter and set back the smoke abatement movement were quite rational. Discounting the unquantifiable (illegible) moral and quality of life issues, and setting aside the still-debated public health concerns, smoke abatement didn’t seem to warrant the same type of radical intervention as the issues of sewage or potable water had not long before. The economic cost of the “smoke tax” on cities with high levels of coal smoke in no way matched the economic benefit brought by coal-based industry. Legislation enabling cities to regulate emissions and fine the worst polluters allowed for the potential of an offset of sorts to the (legible) cost of over-pollution. Likewise, the gradualist approach toward decreased emissions—and thus increased efficiency—made the most economic sense, as it led to eventual improvement and greater productivity without overburdening industry with regulation to a degree that it would harm the overall economy. As Scott repeatedly illustrates, the simplifications implicit to the process of rendering activities and processes legible often leads to lacunae in comprehending those activities—omissions that can cause changes in problem-solving strategies, and horrible miscalculations.

If Scott’s book can be used to provide a richer theoretical understanding of the events Stradling describes, what can Smokestacks and Progressives tell us about Seeing Like a State? Briefly, I think that there are three main insights that can be made about Scott from reading Stradling.

First, as I discussed before, you don’t have to be a state to “see like” one. Scott limits his discussion to the modern nation-state. While this suits the purposes of the book well, the insight into the manner in which the leaders of large, complex institutions render complex events legible can certainly be applied to corporate management. In Stradling we see the state frequently siding with corporations, even allowing corporate-appointed overseers to police corporate activities. There is an ontological symmetry at work here. The economic mode of perception that favors legibility and rationality is at work in both the state and corporate interests.

This leads directly to the second issue raised: one of the four conditions Scott contends are present in all the worst examples of state-sponsored social engineering is the inability of civil society to resist such plans. Stradling’s account of a popular movement repeatedly thwarted by state and corporate interests brings to mind a rather harrowing question: in our current state of late capitalism, with the multiple and multivalent forces of the state and corporations both “seeing like states,” as it were, is there any hope for civil society to actually force change when necessary? Do we possess the ability to resist social engineering that has the power and money of both state and corporate interests behind them? Stradling’s agents, the proponents of smoke abatement, don’t offer much hope. But it begs the question.

Finally, and on a similar note, as we watch the futile struggle of the smoke abatement activists, one must ask about the efficacy of the sort of “metis” that Scott celebrates in confronting the state, which is incapable of such fluid, contingent modes of knowledge. While the progressive women’s groups rhetoric proved ineffective, it was so in part because it reflected the sort of complex reality that the rationalist mode of seeing preferred by the state and the corporate interests. We watch the movement’s proponents snake, parry, and dodge—practicing a discursive metis, as it were. Ultimately, however, this constant movement only resulted in a repeated reframing of the discourse into terms that more and more closely resembled that of the state—and even still, it was ultimately not effective. Once the ontology inherent to “seeing like a state” reaches a sort of critical mass, are contingent, complex modalities of knowledge simply outmoded and ineffective?


Historical Atlases a Go-Go

I’ve looked at a bunch of Historical Atlases over the last couple weeks. I’m just going to comment on four that seemed especially worthy of comment, for good or ill.

The first one I looked at was an atlas I discovered this summer– Donald Cole’s Atlas of American History. Published in 1963 and created by the head of the History Department at Phillips Exeter, the book has a lot to recommend it. It’s a great account of major events in American History, and has a decent amount of textual explication of events– I’d say the book averages about 65% text and 35% maps. In this way, the book was the easiest of those I looked at to "read" in a traditional, linear prose manner. It reads like a traditional introductory American History textbook, with a strong eye to the geographic. Given the author’s profession, working at a prep school, I’d guess that’s exactly the text’s goal. And it works quite well.

For those of us who may be somewhat past the need for a high school History text, however, the book still works. The very strictly chronological ordering of the book and the clear, easily legible maps make it a useful reference when you want to re-orient yourself within a particular area of the US at a particular time. It’s also, given its age, a primary source of its own: I found it fascinating to look at the "contemporary issues" at the end of the book and find the partitioned nation of Vietnam and maps of states that had integrated public schools.

A note on design: this book is straightforward with few embellishments and a very limited palate of black, white, grey, salmon, and brown, which makes it quite nice as far as quick reference and fast comprehension of visual data. There is one embellishment that I really enjoyed, however: the edges of each page that contains a map are scored with a grid, much like on a map, with A, B, C, etc. along the top and 1, 2, 3… along the side of the page. While not strictly functional, I really like this small stylistic embellishment, as it seems to me to serve to remind the reader to place primacy on geography and space: this is not merely a heavily-illustrated textbook of American History, it’s a book that places History within geographic context.

"Western Land Claims Ceded by the States" from Cole's "Atlas of American History"

The next book I’d like to discuss is Dan Bahat’s 1983 Carta’s Historical Atlas of Jerusalem. What really struck me about this book is the use of scale. While the book covers 4000 years of history, it is limited to one relatively small city. Because of this, the book is able to give street maps of the same area over time, and to provide floorplans of buildings of note. I found this especially cool, because it comes closer to the everday understanding of space and place that I think is so important when looking at the experiences of historical actors. You learn a lot more about everyday life from looking at the layout of a particular city and its inhabitants than from looking at a map of the US where each state is colored according to its percentage of black mayors.

The book is easily the wordiest of those I’ve looked at, when you look at the use of page-space, it’s hard not to notice a 75/25 word-to-picture ratio. And while the clean, sparse visuals of Cole’s American History felt simple, clean, and utilitarian, this atlas felt dry, dull, and sparsely illustrated. On the positive side, however, one thing I appreciated was that the maps of the city in different ages were overlaid on a topographical map, creating a good sense of changing urban geography over the (comparatively) unchanging landscape.

Jerusalem, from "Carta's Historical Atlas of Jerusalem" The Temple Mount, from "Carta's Historical Atlas of Jerusalem"

By far the weakest atlas I looked at was the 1986 Harper Atlas of World History. The book manages to be visually overloaded yet dull– I can’t quite account for how they managed that paradox.

The EYESORE that is the "Harper Atlas of World History"

The bottom quarter or so of the book is a timeline, which reflects an incredibly incongruous view of time, as something that skips back and forth and constantly slows. the same amount of space that accounts for 500 years in the early sections of the book accounts for maybe twenty years toward the end.

Likewise, there are strange lacunae in space and time all over the place. Virtually everything before the Common Era takes place in the middle east, a region that then disappears until the late nineteenth century. Chinese history takes the form of eruptions in the fabric of time, always requiring the reader to jump back five hundred years and get caught up to the present, before panning back to the West for another hundred pages. Native Americans are seen migrating to this hemisphere in the earliest maps, which are more "natural history" than history proper, accounting for the origin of man and the like, and then nothing happens on this hemisphere until 1492. The only maps of Indian lands are those that depict them in retreat from arriving Westerners. Apparently nothing happened outside of Egypt on the continent of Africa until the rise of European colonization.

Maybe "World History" is too broad a topic for a single-volume atlas. I don’t doubt that. But that’s just an unforgivable design flaw, not an excuse. And it’s hardly the only design flaw.

Finally, I’d like to talk about my favorite of the bunch– Derek Hayes’s Historic Atlas of the United States (With Original Maps).

Where the first two atlases I’ve discussed were rather colorless, and the Harper atlas was eye-bleedingly badly designed, Hayes has obviously paid the most attention to design. Each page is colored a muted tone, giving the entire experience of reading this book a more aesthetic feeling. Where the other books used contemporary maps to show historical data, this book uses the maps from the historical moment being discussed, allowing you to look at the impact of cartography and historical actors’ understanding of geography. Competing land claims in Colonial America look, in Cole’s book or the Harper atlas, like simply conflicts over domain. Hayes’s use of historical maps reminds us that part of the issue was that these colonizers didn’t fully understand the land, that they didn’t completely know what they were claiming.

The use of colored pages, the careful attention to legible page layouts, and the use of historical maps all come together to create a very different "reading" experience– one that is closer to the experience of entering a salon-style gallery than the prose-reading style of the first two atlases above, or the visual confusion of the Harpers disaster. The eye scans, goes from map to map, settles here and there. It is a book that rewards browsing, flitting about, leafing through time and space.

This is not to say that the book is all style and no substance, or that it represents an aesthetization of map at the expense of real information. First off, one must repeat the constantly-heard but only occasionally heeded maxim that visual data is still data, and that a preference for visual data over the written word can still be information-rich. But the design also does something quite clever to overcome such logocentric critiques. The captions to accompany the images are much longer and more in-depth than those in any other historical atlas I looked at, and are positioned near, but not simply below, the maps in question.

Thus the experiencing of reading the book takes on an almost fractal quality. One’s eyes at first flit about, finally settling on some map that possesses some eye-catching quality– a "strange attractor" if you will. From there, curiosity piqued, they quickly land on the caption, and are given a contextualization of the image. With that new information, you may go back to the image, and your eyes eventually move onto another nearby image– one that is related in some way. You read the caption to this new map. Eventually, your curiosity may be satisfied, or you may move on to reading the prose essay that is woven throughout the section.

The effect is nonlinear, and quite pleasing. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure atlas, made up of three nested layers of "essays," in a specific hierarchy. First is the visual essay made by the juxtaposition, relations, placement, and contents of the maps. The secondary level is a micro-essay of commentary on the visual data, which takes the form of the maps’ captions. Finally, you have the layer of the prose essay within each section.

A section that embodies this reading experience quite well is the two-page spread on "Seas Where They Ought Not Be." The title of the section is superimposed over a map of California as a large island– a persistent and curious phenomenon I’d definitely noticed on old maps before. From there the eye sails down to the Hudson Bay Company’s map of the continent as almost a large archipelago, then diagonally up to the depiction of the Sea or Bay of the West, a large inland sea that consumes most of the Pacific Northwest. One then begins to wonder what’s going on here, and reads some of the captions, followed by looking at the less visually striking maps, going to their captions to see why they’re included, and finally settling on the interspersed essay for a broader view.

"Seas Where They Ought Not Be"

The fonts of the captions and the prose essay are significantly different enough to easily distinguish between the two, and the subtle cream color of the pages compliments the colors in many of the aged, yellowed maps. Certain images bleed off the page, creating visual interest before allowing the eye to move on to the next image, and also creating a method of cropping to the most interesting elements that has a bit more flare than a simple square crop. The placement of the maps is not a simple grid, thus creating visual interest, but remains simple enough to avoid the confusion engendered by the Harper atlas’s cartographic and pictorial clutter.

I really like this one, if you can’t tell.

Finally, while I’ve limited my discussion to books with "Atlas" in the title, I’d like to mention Whitehall and Kennedy’s Boston: A Topographical History, a book that uses a lot of visual data to compliment a textual interpretation of the changing topography of an urban landscape. It doesn’t fit neatly into the tradition of the Atlas, as the images are secondary to the text, but it integrates both quite well, and is a great example of how geography itself can have a history.


There’s always good news coming outta Google…

Online citation techniques are a pain. None of them work perfectly, they often require special html hacks or the like, and getting shiny things like rollovers to work for that mythical little old lady out in the middle of nowhere who still uses dialup and IE 2 is pretty much impossible.

But hope springs eternal for those of us who hang on every word that Google Labs decide to put out into the ether. The newest bit I’ve come across is especially exciting– a way to include direct HTML links to scans of out-of-copyright books using Google Books.

This is great. You want to encourage people to check your quotations and assertions? You can now provide a quick and painless link. I think there’s a lot of possibilities for teachers who use class-based blogs with their students, too.

I’m a little reluctant to get too happy, as Google’s not been the best at recognizing the out-of-copyright status of certain texts, especially (and especially annoyingly) things that were written and published initially to be in the public domain, but may not be 100 years old, like certain government documents, or things published by those who eschew copyright on moral grounds. But it’s good news, nonetheless, and I can’t wait to play with it and see what I can get out of this improved functionality to Google Books.

(Thanks to the folks over at Blogging Pedagogy for making me aware of this…) 



I’ve been neglecting my poor blog. I feel bad for it.

As I intend to keep this blog going for a while, I’ve decided to import my posts on different readings for my Historiography course last semester. They may not represent my finest work, but I hope that– at the very minimum– keeping them somewhere easily findable will be helpful come oral exams.