Spatial Humanities and Visual Narratives

[This is a reading reflection written for HIST946: Digital Humanities with Professor William Thomas during the Fall 2011 semester. This week’s readings were Richard White, “What is Spatial History?,” Philip Ethington, “Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge,” and David Staley, “Historical Visualizations”. You can find related posts here.]

Computer visualizations offer new ways for humanist scholars to reconfigure the notion of narrative As David Staley notes, visualizations have the ability to depict complex information into spatial form. Historical visualizations, then, represent historical information in a visual or spatial manner rather than verbal or linear. These methods begin to give form to new styles of narrative, or perhaps answer Orville Vernon Burton’s call for models of scholarship beyond the written monograph.

Burton writes that “history, similar to all disciplines, is badly in need of models beyond the monograph for the demonstration of excellence, and where the scholarship itself is in need of new genres and new strategies for reaching new audiences.” The visualization of humanistic information and data may represent one new method for scholars to communicate their findings and research their topics with the aid of computers.

New ideas about the intersections between geography, history, and theory along with technological methods and techniques points towards methods humanist scholars can utilize in studying the intersections between space and place. Humanists now conceive of space more acutely, fully aware of how politics and society can influence both physical and imaginative space. As Richard White notes, space is not simply natural geography or a container to be filled with history. Instead of an empty vessel awaiting historical action, space is a historical actor where stories occur over geography and history (space and time). Space, then, is a site of continual conflict shaped by struggles over power and definition.

What this all means for the humanities is a reconsideration of how technologies like Geographic Information Systems can be applied to humanistic data. There are various ways of doing so. For example, scholars can apply GIS to spatial infrastructure, what Henri Lefebvre called “spatial practice,” by mapping physical spaces from county boundaries to transnational railroad lines. The greater challenge is how to map relational space. GIS emphasizes the absolute space (inches, feet, miles) but can do little to represent how space was constructed. But this way of thinking about space opens up new lines of inquiry about the connections between culture and geography. Philip Ethington asks scholars to think more broadly about definitions of space. In his example of Los Angeles, the city can exist as the Consolidated Metropolitan Area of the US Census Bureau, or the City of Los Angeles, or popular definitions of the city in sources like Baywatch or Blade Runner. How do we reconcile the technology of GIS with its emphasis on the given-ness of space with the constructed-ness of space?

Especially significant in spatial humanities is the reliance on mapping not as a byproduct of research, but integrated deeply throughout the research process. Spatial humanities offers new ways to construct narratives about historical events.