Steven Johnson is the author of Ghost Map, a book about the cholera epidemics of 19th century London and the famous work of John Snow. Snow is sometimes described as the father of epidemiology and his maps have been very influential in geography and cartography.
In this interview Johnson explains that he first heard of the story through Tufte’s books (as most people have I imagine, certainly in geography). Johnson is not a historian as far as I know, but rather studied English at Columbia. There he studied under Franco Moretti (who wrote Graphs, Maps, Trees).
Moretti has this essay on literary evolution, I think it’s called “On Literary Evolution” in Signs Taken for Wonders, and I remember having this amazing experience of reading it and seeing him walking down Broadway in Morningside Heights, and saying, “But Franco, I think you’re talking about science here in kind of a straight way; you’re saying, “science has these ideas about the world that may be true, so let’s see if we can apply some of those ideas to the study of literature, and you don’t seem to be deconstructing science at all” and he said, “Right.” “Interesting approach,” I thought. It just opened up this whole world—“oh, I could just borrow some of these ideas and not actually be battling those folks, I could actually ask them for help.” That was the beginning of a whole avenue that took a long time to explore.
Johnson is then asked about Foucault’s influence on the book. the interviewer has to do a bit of work to make Johnson see the connection:
Well, let me follow up on that for a moment and then come back to the Victorian bit. Since you speak theory, as we’ve just covered, I wondered if you could comment on the absence of Foucault from The Ghost Map. Because there’s such a close fit, that it almost seems like a pointed refusal.
That’s interesting. Maybe it is. Nobody’s asked me that, and, you know, Foucault was my idol when I was twenty, so maybe there’s some point of denying it. I literally have not read in—I mean, I have dog-eared copies, I read Discipline and Punish, Archaeology of Knowledge, and History of Sexuality, and—what’s the madness one?
Madness and Civilization
I read those books over and over again. Maybe I’ve just blocked it out in some way … it’s interesting. How would you have connected Foucault to Ghost Map?
Well, the whole idea of epidemiology as a kind of insertion of disciplinary techniques; you seem to be begging at the end for … a mass intrusion of disciplinary biopower into the Third World. It’s like you could be the devil-man of a certain kind of postcolonial science studies.
Right, right. That’s interesting.
The interviewer later tries to push him on the question of counter-knowledges (or bottom up knowledges anyway), what Johnson calls “local” knowledges. Yet the interviewer points out that Johnson really wants this epidemiological imperialism.
Anyway, read the interview, it’s very interesting kind of discussion, with the interlocutor leading the interviewee quite considerably to consider things more explicitly.
The John Snow website with all his maps is here.