Reflecting on spatial humanities beyond literature

As the syllabus starts to expand from focusing primarily on (the) text as data, I was admittedly apprehensive about the readings this week. I remember a few vocabulary terms related to space and mapping from a formative class on modernist and contemporary literature and the Anthropocene (focusing on the figure of the flaneur and psychogeography), but I have never used GIS software or any mapping technology in my own work, have spent very little time talking about space in academic contexts, and have only recently begun to learn about geography as a discipline. This relatively “blank slate” turned out to be helpful for this week’s readings. As we have emphasized throughout the semester, digital humanities as a field can/should incorporate a sense of play into the process of inquiry, and it’s much easier to play with a low sense of expectation and an open mind.

I began this week with The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship, edited by David J. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan, and Trevor M. Harris, and worked through the text from designated beginning to end. The opening chapter of The Spatial Humanities, “Turning toward Place, Space, and Time,” by Edward L. Ayers, was eye-opening in several capacities, starting with its overview of the history of GIS across disciplines and how geography as a field fits into this history. Rather than using the familiar (and, at times, frustratingly flexible) term “interdisciplinary,” Ayers quotes geographer Stanley Brunn’s assertion that geography is “the bridging discipline or an interfacing or fusing discipline” (Ayers 2). I am not sure if more scholars have written on the difference between this bridging/interfacing/fusing cluster and interdisciplinarity, or if there is even a substantial enough difference to discuss, but I liked the new phrasing and imagery here. This sense of bridging means that geography crosses and studies “the relationships between the human and physical phenomena” — in this case, focusing on physical phenomena through space, in the same way that Ayers suggests the historian takes time as their organizing unit (3). (I am still not entirely convinced that “history is, at heart, a humanistic discipline rather than a social science,” but we’ll leave this discussion alone for now.) Geography and history make perfect sense as interfacing fields examining the same landscape, particularly with the help of Bakhtin’s critical vocabulary (Ayers 4), sociological insights like Andrew Abbott’s description of time as “a series of overlapping presents” (quoted in Ayers, 5), and the notion of “landscape” itself (explored in detail in “Representations of Space and Place in the Humanities” by Gary Lock, Chapter 6 of the same collection), all of which help locate humanities scholarship in three and four dimensions.

The editors’ chapter, “Challenges for the Spatial Humanities: Toward a Research Agenda,” goes more into the details of the spatial humanities specifically, rather than the history of GIS or GIScience. In particular, I was drawn to their warnings against relying uncritically on the positivist technology of GIS itself for humanities and humanist scholarship (168) and the related importance of applying sound humanistic judgment to spatial and temporal data that often, as we briefly touched on in our discussion of Miriam Posner’s “What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities” (recommended for September 25), collapses into convenient and inaccurate categories. On this wavelength, the editors mention metaphorical space as well — that of text clouds, for example (172) — but I felt myself glossing over this section and wanting to read more about how to ethically, respectfully explore actual/real/non-metaphorical time and space as a humanist (borrowing from the social scientist’s toolkit), returning to the concept of respecting the complexity of your data.

In addition to a sense of play and the importance of designing research that respects the full range of data, this week saw another recurring theme (in my mind) from the semester so far: the fact that humanities scholarship can extend beyond those very few texts typically designated as “literature.” This isn’t about expanding the canon necessarily (a separate and valuable discussion!), but rather expanding my own idea about what humanities scholarship can and should be. I was convinced that our conversation about mapping in DH would all be related to literature or literary history: mapping the Republic of Letters, for example, or else following the plot of a novel around a plot of land. This week disproved my assumption that mapping — or any spatial/temporal approach to humanities work — has to follow or replicate an existing narrative and instead showed that mapping can, no matter the exact technology used, present multiple overlapping or even competing narratives about a time and/or place.

It was here that the section on “The Humanities in the Digital Humanities” (22) in HyperCities: Thick Mapping in the Digital Humanities spoke to me the most, particularly with the spark of an idea about creating a thick map of something to do with culture, art, and/or information in Europe during the Cold War (a period of history that has been catching my attention more and more recently). I didn’t get the chance to complete a map of my own this week in time to write about it and reflect fully, in part because I was so happy to realize that, amazingly, I didn’t need to limit myself to a literary topic, but I hope to be able to return to these readings soon in the semester with a bit of distance. The concept of deep/thick mapping — mentioned in these readings, with more differences between space and place and other practical details outlined here — is one of the most fascinating concepts we’ve encountered so far this semester because it incorporates so many of the values and practices that have cut across readings and discussions. With this in mind, the idea of building a meaningful, layered, expansive map of a historical site is something that I want to return to for sure, especially now that I don’t feel limited to mapping information drawn from or related to literature.