Space Matters

[Originally posted to the course blog for Doing Digital Humanities, Prof. Ryan Cordell.]

In addition to our reading for class about mapping, several blog posts about mapping and GIS have been in my RSS feed reader this week. All these have combined to make me think more critically about space and its representations in historical research and presentation.

As Jo Guldi points out, the spatial turn in history occurred as early as the modern study of history. It seems almost self-evident that historical analysis has to include a discussion of space, at least to historians now. The history of people is inextricably linked to the history of those people’s space. And as historians focused more on national history, space obviously had to be considered. Guldi says, “Telling a history of nation rather than family required the writers to develop tools for privileging landscape over the portrait,” especially since the history of nations is almost always a history of their definitions of, representations of, and pursuit of geographical space.

(Imagined) Actual Space

Despite so much focus on spaces and maps, our spatial sense, both as historians and as people in general, is often deeply flawed. (I speak for myself here, but also more generally.) Imagined space, based on perceived importance, is often conflated with actual, physical space. Kelly Johnston demonstrates this principle with an amusing map of Texas, but he also draws attention to a less tongue-in-cheek blindness of many Americans to exactly how large other parts of the world are. I can’t speak for other people in the world, but it wouldn’t surprise me if people all over the world inflate their own geography’s size and importance.

Using Space in History

As Richard White points out, many historians share that general blindness to how space relates to the study of history. But it’s also hard to use simple space, or simple geography, to demonstrate a historical point. For instance, talking about how railroads expanded across the United States is not simply a geographical discussion, but also a social, political, and labor question. Geography alone does not usually make something historically interesting (though there are certainly examples to the contrary).

White discusses how space is more than just a geographical construct by relating it to the work of Henri Lefebvre:

Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space introduced a generation of historians to the idea that space is neither simply natural geography nor an empty container filled by history. It is rather something that human beings produce over time. Spatial relations shift and change. Space is itself historical. Lefebvre, who was a philosopher and not a geographer, organized his own work around three forms of space that he called spatial practice, representations of space, and representational space.

I think these distinctions about spatial practice (how space is used), representations of space (maps, architectural renderings, etc.), and representational space (“an attempt to conceive in order to shape what is lived and perceived” such as setting aside land for national parks in order to shape the idea of wilderness as important space?) are helpful if only for thinking through why space matters.

I don’t think most historians purposefully ignore space. More and more are adopting the spatial turn, for sure. But what sometimes happens is that previous historians’ assumptions about space are accepted and propagated without much thought about how those representations affect the story.

An example from my own research: As I was preparing for a lecture on the Barbary Wars, I suddenly realized that I had no idea why the United States was even interested in protecting their right to space in the Mediterranean Sea. So I went searching in all my books about the Barbary Wars, about early American trade, about naval history more generally…and I came up completely empty. Not one book I found mentioned why the United States was even in the Mediterranean at all. We all assume that it’s because of trade. But there are no numbers on how big of a trade it was. There are stories about commercial vessels being taken by the Barbary corsairs, of course, but no mention of what they were doing in the Mediterranean or what percentage of the volume of trade they represented. To me, this is a problem (one I intend to rectify as soon as possible, perhaps this summer). It’s not that the assumptions are wrong: they’re probably right. It’s that historians don’t account for American presence in that space in any meaningful way. (There probably are books out there that address this, but I haven’t seen them.)

How does GIS help?

It’s very easy to look at a lot of quantitative geographical data and draw broad conclusions from the data without pinning those data points to an actual map. Neither, in some cases, is there a need for such precision in data use. And before the availability of GIS, plotting large data sets onto maps was simply impractical–trying to account for hundreds of points of latitude/longitude, for example, might turn a simple hypothesis test into a life’s work!

But GIS enables the historian to easily make the connections between the specific data points and the larger assumptions. Mapping census data onto actual county maps may reveal some geographical or social features not obvious in the data charts. Or sometimes GIS can reveal a discrepancy between the historical facts and the historical assumptions. Such is the case in the research of my colleague John Dixon at Harvard, whose research involved using GIS to plot locations of commercial vessels on their routes using data from their ship’s logs. His research has demonstrated that the assumption of many historians, the existence of very narrow shipping lanes in the Atlantic Ocean, is simply not true, since ships actually traversed almost all of the northern Atlantic. This data has been available for decades, but GIS has allowed the data to confront the assumptions and, in this case, prove them mostly false.

Seth Long also suggests that digital maps (of one sort or another) can be used to mashup spatial and non-spatial data in a way that physical paper maps can’t. He says:

Too often, digital maps are treated like paper maps: they select one or two elements and then deflect everything else, which completely undermines the utility of these interfaces and the plethora of data available online. Mapping socio-economic factors shows us one thing; mapping presidential voting patterns shows us another; mapping proposition voting shows us something else. These just scratch the surface. Individually, digital maps are valuable, but together, they construct a much richer and more robust view of a place than they do individually.

These broader themes seem a good reason to start thinking about GIS.

Caveat Emptor

Despite the grand abilities of GIS, I still have a few concerns before buying in completely. GIS isn’t a panacea for all mapping problems; after all, at the end of the day, as J.B. Hartley said, “The map is not the territory.” Maps can’t represent everything about the spaces they depict. And even GIS, with its seeming objectivity, can’t create objective maps.

Maps are political, even GIS maps. Some critics of GIS have suggested that it stems from a positivist idea of objectivity (Bodenhammer 19), and that criticism seems relevant. More importantly, though, GIS maps are built on a Western spatial perspective, a scientific perspective. Non-Western mapping (or non-European) doesn’t necessarily privilege science as a measure of space. And who’s to say that Westerners are right and others aren’t? Why should science be the standard way of representing space, when in many instances it isn’t the standard way people actually consider it?

In addition, GIS’s impact is based on precision, or at least the illusion of precision. Mapping precise latitude and longitude can be very helpful, but the map is only as good as the data. In some instances, the data is sketchy or flat-out wrong. This is a problem my colleague John Dixon is working through: ship captains didn’t always record in their logs the position they believed themselves to be at. In addition, calculating longitude without a chronometer is a matter of guesswork at best. So these seemingly precise plot points are not that precise after all. And why is the data flawed? Perhaps it’s because those ship captains privileged a different conception of space.

There’s a lot more to say about GIS, I think–a lot more ramifications for how we research and how we think through our own assumptions, both about the historical record and about the tools we’re using to discover that record. In the meantime, this HASTAC forum, just posted, deals with some of these questions about mapping, in case you’re interested. It might be a good chance to see how other scholars approach these unique ways of looking at space.

5 thoughts on “Space Matters

  1. More importantly, though, GIS maps are built on a Western spatial perspective, a scientific perspective. Non-Western mapping (or non-European) doesn’t necessarily privilege science as a measure of space. And who’s to say that Westerners are right and others aren’t? Why should science be the standard way of representing space, when in many instances it isn’t the standard way people actually consider it?

    It depends what you need the map for, no? What you call ‘scientific’ mapping has been pretty valuable for hundreds of different ends; what reasons can you think of where an individual or group wouldn’t want a map based on Western cartographic principles? I’m not suggesting there aren’t any reasons! What might they be, though? Upon what other principles or orientations might we build a map? Important to answer, I think, if you’re going to bring up the postmodern thing :)

    Also, I’d personally be more cautious about equating “non-Western” with “not scientific.” Just because a particular tribe uses East, where the sun rises, to orient their maps (the way Westerners use North) doesn’t mean their maps aren’t good for moving objectively in space. How else would Polynesians have navigated the oceans without some level of what we lovingly call ‘objectivity’?

    1. Seth,
      Thanks very much for your comments. You are definitely right that I wasn’t as precise as I should have been in my terminology. I don’t necessarily mean that Western = scientific or the converse. I simply mean that in the past, and probably in the present, Westerners have thought of what they do as scientific where they don’t see other ways of viewing the world as scientific. (So, looking to the east isn’t scientific, in some people’s minds.) I think that a lot of Western ways of looking at space are equally unscientific in that sense. So yes, I should have made it clear that Western does not equal scientific.

      The questions about alternate ways of mapping beside “standard” Western conventions are exactly the questions I’m wondering about. For instance, one map I can imagine that might be interesting would be a map based on travel time, not on geographic distance, between places. I really don’t know. My only point is that we shouldn’t assume that GIS is the completely objective, best way to look at space. I think you have some great material about how to best use GIS as objectively as possible. I don’t want to see GIS turn into just another assumption. Does that make sense?

      I am certainly going to use GIS. But since I’m relatively new to it, I’m trying to think through all the ramifications and be as transparent as possible about my methodologies (a la Gibbs and Owens). Thanks for helping me think through things even more, with both your original post and your comment here.

      1. The questions about alternate ways of mapping beside “standard” Western conventions are exactly the questions I’m wondering about. For instance, one map I can imagine that might be interesting would be a map based on travel time, not on geographic distance, between places.

        That’s an intriguing idea. In centuries past, I imagine travel time was absolutely vital. And if the Powers That Be ever decide to re-invest in space travel, I imagine that Time could become a vital spatial measurement again.

        My only point is that we shouldn’t assume that GIS is the completely objective, best way to look at space.

        To that end, I certainly agree.

  2. [Originally posted in Professor Cordell’s main course blog – Just realized the discussion for ‘space matters’ was happening over here, so I reposted]

    First, an introduction and apology to fit the format established by Peter & Staci’s posts:

    Hi, I’m Adam Kozaczka, a student in Dr. Forster’s seminar over at SU, here to comment on GIS posts without knowing much about GIS… I know things about the 18th and 19th centuries, though, so here’s some input on a moment in your initial post that has already received some attention from Ben.

    “GIS maps are built on a Western spatial perspective, a scientific perspective. Non-Western mapping (or non-European) doesn’t necessarily privilege science as a measure of space. And who’s to say that Westerners are right and others aren’t? Why should science be the standard way of representing space, when in many instances it isn’t the standard way people actually consider it?”

    This has got me thinking about painting and painterly ways of representing space. Without going beyond ‘Western’ cultures, we can find examples of drawing and painting the function of which was arguably map-like but the space-representing conventions of which were much less scientific than that stricter medium. I’m referring to a spectrum of 17th, 18th, and 19th century ways of representing property ranging from the work of the ever-hireable draughtsman to the more celebrated and painterly depictions of noble estates commissioned by their owners. A few examples that hover between these categories: first, a 19th century copy of what is believed to have been etched by J. Kipp more than a century earlier – a commissioned depiction of the grounds of a well-known country estate; then, a French example of a similar gaze directed on a Continental manor.

    (1) http://www.antiquetrader.com/featured/godward-classical-painting-waiting-for-the-procession-may-top-600k/attachment/a-front-and-a-rear-view-of-a-french-estateweb

    (2) http://www.thurrock.gov.uk/heritage/content.php?page=factfiles_details&id=17

    The distortion of the countryside to make prominent the manicured grounds of the estate is quite deliberate and must have been what was expected of the painter: the property-privileging distortion, in other words, is an essential function of the artist’s gaze (now, to find an art historian of the period).

    An example from elsewhere on this spectrum of representing property is the below painting commissioned by a famous mill owner and paper innovator whose intention was for Paul Sandby to capture that bit of Kentish paysage dominated by his house, mill, and private acreage (first a link to a decent image of the painting, then a link to an image that zooms in on the mill itself).

    http://www.yale.edu/opa/arc-ybc/v34.n19/story11.jpg

    http://www.wovepaper.co.uk/images/turkeymill.jpg

    My point in posting these images is to provide some evidence for more artistic ways of representing space that I feel overlap with the mapping efforts of the period. The gentlemen who commissioned these paintings and drawings doubtless also had highly accurate maps of the exact boundaries of their lands (so frequently were they redrawn in courts of law), but may have imagined the land itself through a spectrum of representations. I’m only raising this to suggest that if what we are contemplating is the possibility of mapping methods that are non-scientific or that in other was differ from the logics behind something like GIS, then the modes of representation that we may be looking for may appear nothing like maps, though they may serve similar purposes and may most importantly coexist and rely on ‘scientific’ maps of the same location. Paul Sandby (1731-1809), who according to the National Gallery in Edinburgh’s website, for a period in his career focused on such paintings, was in fact trained as a cartographer and a draughtsman, and later moved on to finer arts and to earn himself a place on the list of well-remembered English painters of the Eighteenth Century.

    Helen Wyld argues that while in his early career he was liaised to the British Military Survey of Scotland in the 1740s (Jacobite-heated years), Sandby’s drawings not only served the intelligence-gathering purposes of the survey, but also through their perspective dominated the resistant landscape for Britain — the very short article is worth a quick glance:

    Wyld, Helen. “Re-Framing Britain’s Past: Paul Sandby and the picturesque tour of Scotland.” British Art Journal; Summer2011, Vol. 12 Issue 1, p29-36, 8p

    As historical geographers well know, methods of (scientifically and/or artistically) representing (especially conquered) landscapes themselves dominate the landscapes they represent. Above, Abby writes, “Maps are political, even GIS maps. Some critics of GIS have suggested that it stems from a positivist idea of objectivity (Bodenhammer 19), and that criticism seems relevant.”

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