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Bill Rankin, Yale University

Thu October 8th 2020, 4:30 - 6:00pm

The Visual Epistemology of Population and the Politics of Blobs and Dots after 1919

The immediate goal of the Peace Conference of 1919 was to draft new territorial borders, and the conventional wisdom—both at the time and in recent scholarship—has focused on the problem of nationhood. How can nationality be stabilized and made legitimate, and what is its relationship to race, ethnicity, language, religion, trade, history, and conquest? Cartography was a key technology for mediating between the two meanings of nation: nation as a bounded space, nation as a group of people—a population. But for geographers, the representation of population was something broader and more difficult than nationality; it wasn’t even clear whether population was something that could be adequately represented at all. My talk starts with the huge proliferation of population maps in 1919 and follows the debate that ensued over the next twenty years, as “the population problem”—and its politics of neo-Malthusianism, eugenics, urbanization, and migration—provoked a search, in both Europe and the US, for “the perfect population map.” The two main camps were the blobs and the dots. These were not just different graphic strategies, but different visual arguments about environment, history, and governance that, I argue, inscribed a clear gender binary into the spatiality of human geography. Neither side could ultimately claim victory, and a hard visual dichotomy between geographic space and population space still persists a hundred years later. This historical, feminist analysis unsettles the surface-level politics of contemporary data visualization.

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