Did the opioid epidemic help Trump win?

New article in The Nation:


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New research shows that Trump made huge gains in counties with the highest rates of death from drugs, alcohol, and suicide.
By Zoë Carpenter

The Nation article draws on empirical work by Penn State prof Shannon Monnat, who argues that counties “heavily burdened by opioid overdoses and other ‘deaths of despair'” [eg suicide] were where Trump “overperformed” in terms of his voting outcomes compared to Mitt Romney.

There’s been a lot of debate recently about whether Clinton “lost” Democratic votes (ie suffered lowered turnout) or whether Trump found some appeal, beyond explanations deriving from a politics of fear or racism. Logically, both could be true at the same time of course, but for my money I am most persuaded by Monnat’s analysis. I see it fitting a tradition of writing about rural/rustbelt anxieties about being left behind in terms of the economic transition. In Kentucky for example, there’s plenty of angst around the coal industry (Appalachian Kentucky voted overwhelmingly for Trump…even as they massively preferred Bernie Sanders over Clinton in the primaries.)

Here’s a picture of a typical car license plate I took on the UKY campus, outside the computer science building, part of the “Friends of Coal” movement:


You could respond with the observation that this is a rear-guard defense of the 6,254 (Q3 2016) people still in mining in Kentucky, and/or are long-standing trends (and were apparent during Romney’s and Obama’s election campaigns). Indeed, the shift from industrial to post-industrial “service” economies was taught in my undergraduate curriculum in the early 1980s by my former Liverpool university lecturer Peter Daniels, among others. [Sidenote: he’s emeritus now, wow].

The counter to that would then be something like, yes, but Trump mobilized sentiment in effective ways [how?]; just like Brexit, there’s something affectively going on at this particular time. Opioid use has certainly shot upward in the last few years alone. The recent Surgeon General report claimed that more people have a substance use disorder than who have cancer (20.8 million vs. 14 million). More precisely, 47,000 died from a drug overdose (30,000 from prescription drugs, largely opioids). This has led to headlines like the “Oxy electorate” and “opioid alley” referring to Kentucky, where 1,248 people died from drug overdoes in 2015. This has knock-on effects of high rates of hepatitis C. These do seem new developments at this scale.

Some of these eastern Kentucky counties are also the most heavily dependent on government benefits (well over 45% of county income in some cases). This means a full explanation will also have to account for stagnant/declining wages since the 1980s. And for that we need an account of neoliberalism…

British Library’s Maps and the 20th Century Exhibition


The British Library has a new exhibition on “Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line” (through March 1, 2017).

I was able to visit it last week and highly recommend it. One of the surprises for me was seeing the original of Harry Beck’s London Underground map, which I’d only previously seen in print or online.

There’s a great story from 2013 of Beck getting a famous London blue historical plaque here.

Here he is holding the original, which as you can see is surprisingly small:



Many thanks to Tom Harper, lead curator of Antiquarian Maps at the BL, for giving a guided tour!

Towards a Geography of Injustice

Clive Barnett new paper and news of a recently finished book The Priority of Injustice.

Pop Theory

IMG_0166Just in time for anyone still wondering what they should pack to read by the beach this summer, here is a short paper by me entitled  Towards a Geography of Injustice, available open access at the Finnish journal Alue & Ympäristö (Region and Environment – my paper is not in Finnish, just to be clear), which I’m told is “unofficially” the “critical geography journal of Finland”.  This is pretty much the tidied up script of the Keynote Lecture I presented at the Annual Meeting of Finnish Geographers in Tampere back in October last year. I learnt lots and met nice people at the meeting, and thanks to Kirsi Pauliina Kallio for asking me to write the talk up properly.

This is a short and quite discursive version of only one part of a longer, and I hope deeper, argument about ‘the priority of injustice’ that I have been working out in my…

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British Library – Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line

Looking forward to visiting this! I’ve been asked to write a short blog entry for the BL website, which I hope to do shortly. Here’s Stuart’s writeup (and he announces he’ll be part of a session on the exhibition in January).

Progressive Geographies

bl-maps-exhib-img-624x351Last night I attended the opening of the British Library exhibition ‘Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line‘.

The lead curator is Tom Harper, but as he insisted, this was a collaborative project, and there were external experts used such as Mike Heffernan from the University of Nottingham.

The British Library has a huge collection of maps, and one of the challenges was selecting just the 200 on display in the exhibition. Not all come from the BL collection, of course. Given the twentieth century focus, much is explicitly political or geopolitical, but there are also maps from fiction, artworks and tourism. There were some striking juxtapositions of maps and a single visit wasn’t enough to take it all in. I’m hoping to go back. I was particularly struck by Satomi Matoba’s Topographical Map of Utopia, which uses military maps to build up a representation of the…

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Curating (in)security: Unsettling Geographies of Cyberspace CfP AAG 2017

Great looking AAG call for papers here.

Linguistic Geographies

Curating (in)security: Unsettling Geographies of Cyberspace
Call for Papers
AAG 2017 Boston (April 5-9, 2017)

In calling for the unsettling of current theorisation and practice, this session intends to initiate an exploration of the contributions geography can bring to cybersecurity and space. This is an attempt to move away from the dominant discourses around conflict and state prevalent in international relations, politics, computer science and security/war studies. As a collective, we believe geography can embrace alternative perspectives on cyber (in)securities that challenge the often masculinist and populist narratives of our daily lives. Thus far, there has been limited direct engagement with cybersecurity within geographical debates, apart from ‘cyberwar’ (Kaiser, 2015; Warf 2015), privacy (Amoore, 2014), or without recourse to examining this from the algorithmic or code perspective (Kitchin & Dodge, 2011; Crampton, 2015).

As geographers, we are ideally placed to question the discourses that drive the spatio-temporal challenges made manifest…

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Surveillance capitalism?


Eric Schmidt, Executive Chair Google

Surveillance capitalism, in Shoshana Zuboff’s formulation, is a new form of capitalism that works by creating surplus value from the data extracted from people in digital environments (which today is much more than just being online but includes driving your internet-capable car for example: the Internet of Everything).

Now, data about where we are, where we’re going, how we’re feeling, what we’re saying, the details of our driving, and the conditions of our vehicle are turning into beacons of revenue that illuminate a new commercial prospect.

According to Zuboff’s analysis, surveillance capitalism was invented by companies like Google and Facebook in the Internet era. We’ve heard before how these companies treat you as the product rather than the customer, but Zuboff aims to show that users are “a means to profits in a new kind of marketplace in which users are neither buyers nor sellers nor products” (emphasis added).

Rather, we are workers and the extra behaviors we perform (ie., labor) produce a surplus which she calls “behavioral surplus” but could better be called surplus behavior to align with Marx’s surplus value. Either way, this surplus is what is sold on, and not just to advertisers but to anyone who wants to have predictive capacity. (Here we can recall Louise Amoore’s point about algorithms using data derivatives to “infer across the gaps”.) This value is not returned to the workers however, despite the fact that companies know their average revenue per user, or ARPU. If you live in North America for example, you’re worth $12.43 to Facebook in income, but unless you work for them I doubt you’ve seen any of that. Following David Harvey, she calls this “dispossession by surveillance.”

While I think much of this is correct, a lot of the details need to be filled in (perhaps in her book Master or Slave? The Fight for the Soul of Our Information Civilization coming out in 2017).

It may also not be as new as it looks. You can find similar arguments going back to the 1980s if not the 1970s; well before the Internet era. In 1986 Sut Jhally and Bill Livant showed how “there is a factory in your living room” in their important paper “Watching as Working: The Valorization of Audience Consciousness.” Drawing on the work of Dallas Smythe in the 1970s who sought to go beyond the prevailing view that mass communication was about ideology, a view dating back to at least Walter Lippmann. Smythe’s view was that the “commodity form” of mass communication was audiences. These audiences use “their” time to produce commodities by watching advertising-supported TV. These commodities are:

the services of audiences with predictable specifications who will pay attention in predictable numbers and at particular times to particular means of communication

Note the foreshadowing of Zuboff’s argument that Google sell predictable (surplus) behavior to advertisers and others. Smythe notes as well how part of what is sold are the data and metadata about users or what he calls “the demographics”:

age, sex, income level, family composition, urban or rural location, ethnic character, ownership of home, automobile, credit card status, social class, and in the case of hobby and fan magazines, a dedication to photography, model electric trains, sports cars, philately, do-it-yourself crafts, foreign travel, kinky sex, etc.

Of course today, as Zuboff notes these mere categorizations are replaced with persistent live data streams, especially of your real-time geolocation. But nevertheless, the same basic idea is at play here.

Jhally and Livant argued that when we watch TV, we perform what they call “watching extra.” It is this “extra” that we produce through our labor as an audience that is made into a commodity. When we watch a show (or today use the Internet) there is both necessary and surplus watching time, they argued. The costs of putting on a show involve making it good enough to make us want to continue watching it–to reproduce our activity of watching. However, we watch more than is strictly necessary to reproduce our watching, eg., the advertising. This extra or surplus watching time forms the basis for valorization.

Zuboff has given this a memorable name and updated it for the Internet world–nothing wrong with that. I also think she makes a very good point about the productive anxiety of uncertainty:

Paradoxically, the certainty of uncertainty is both an enduring source of anxiety and one of our most fruitful facts. It produced the universal need for social trust and cohesion, systems of social organization, familial bonding, and legitimate authority, the contract as formal recognition of reciprocal rights and obligations, and the theory and practice of what we call “free will.” When we eliminate uncertainty, we forfeit the human replenishment that attaches to the challenge of asserting predictability in the face of an always-unknown future in favor of the blankness of perpetual compliance with someone else’s plan.

Of course in this case, the anxious drive to remove uncertainty has produced the surveillant state, which Zuboff acknowledges is a threat to democratic life. What we need to do better is examine what kinds of anxieties there are, and what it is they produce. There are already some good resources about anxiety out there, and of course it has a long history from Freud to Lacan. More on this later and hopefully we can address it at the AAG conference next year.

2017 International Conference on Narrative

Another conference: the 2017 International Conference on Narrative will be held in Lexington, Kentucky, March 23-26. Looks like this one will be held off-campus, at the Hilton hotel.

Keynote speakers for this one will be Judith Butler, Kenneth Warren and Linda Williams.


(This is a mural of Lincoln on a wall in downtown Lexington. Screenshot from their site.)