Wednesday, March 26, 2008


Good lord.

Yes, I've read about the eugenics movement before, here and there, but was still shaken by the exhibit we went to see at the Science Museum of Minnesota this past weekend. It's called "Deadly Science: Creating the Master Race." It's organized and circulated by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and not surprisingly, it does a really good job, as my wife Ingrid put it, of taking you on a guided tour through Hell.

The point of the show to my mind is to follow the slippery slope from genetics to genocide, which it does well. It's easy to put the label "monster" on the people involved in the events in Germany, but the exhibit is effective in keeping them very human as long as possible... criminal, yes, but still human.

Ouch. It reminded me of the sensation of watching The Talented Mr Ripley, as the title character keeps choosing the violent and brutal over the tender but painful, becoming action by action more of a monster in an effort to protect himself and the lies he began with.

I was talking with Ingrid afterwards, and asked her where she thought the eugenics people went wrong. It's not as easy a question as it sounds: we use genetics all the time, breeding apples and dogs and meat animals (and yes, I know vegetarians have a point here). But there are clearly also positive aspects to studying the human genome, in terms of dealing with human disease.

Ingrid's thought was that the emphasis on "use" was one of the eugenicists' biggest mistakes, the idea that Downs Syndrome people aren't "useful" and so should be (big euphemism here) discarded (full disclosure: she had a distant cousin who was one of the "discards"). The Third Reich's ideology came out of a very functionalist mindset—it's a German stereotype, but there is a strongly materialistically practical worldview that is part of German identity (when we were over last year we greatly enjoyed the Ritter Sport chocolate's motto, translated as "Square. Practical. Good.").

"Use" is about power; it applies to tools. Applying it to people makes them into tools—objects— and removes empathetic connection.

Which speaks I think to what Steven was saying about the grid: it removes empathetic connection to the earth.

Except of course there are plenty of cartographers and map users who still have that connection. When you go to NACIS and listen to people talking about doing the maps they love, its an exercise in opening up a connection they feel to the landscape to other people. I certainly feel that way about the urban maps I make. So where is the problem?

The problem comes, I think, in enforcement of abstract systems back onto the world as a way of not dealing with its complexities. It's so much easier to just put a graticule down on top of a continent, repeating six-by-six-mile townships over hill and dale, wetland and mesa, always the same. It's easier to just say "you're the wrong sort of person, so you go in that line there."

All of these knowledge structures—the graticule, genetics, or the Dewey Decimal System—have histories, and they have biases and cultural codes locked inside them. As platforms for communication, they also provide a truly open-source basis. Where they most egregiously fall down is when their structure is applied back onto the subject of the knowledge as an exercise of power: when genetics stops being a way of discussing and exploring hereditary characteristics and starts being a way of sorting people; when books are rejected for not fitting into a filing system; when graticule lines are physically cut into the earth.

1 comment:

Dug said...

Another layer of complexity is added when you consider that the intersection and origin points of a graticule are themselves in motion (tectonics, earthquakes, settling of land, ground water movement, etc). It's way more complicated than we often want to acknowledge. I'm sure there's a parallel that can be drawn from this to genetics/eugenics but what it is escapes me at this hour on a Friday.