What is the Spatial Turn? Plus Theory Fun with Farman

Theory-heavy post incoming! If you haven’t thought much about our experience of space (the physically-existing-in-the-world kind and not the planets-and-stars kind) as historically contingent, you’re about to!

Jo Guldi’s multi-part blog post, “What is the Spatial Turn?”, follows the trend of academic disciplines thinking about space and how space is experienced. GIS, she argues, opened up a new conversation about space that allowed for larger scale questions that could be answered using digital resources.

In the section on “The Spatial Turn in History”, Guldi begins with the importance of landscape descriptions in 19th century historical scholarship. She explains how this trend in writing tied in with the nationalism of the moment. To do this type of work, historians generally had to actually travel the land about which they were writing. Guldi writes, “So from their birth, modern historians were travelers and specialists in landscape[.]” A focus on the urban environment in the second half of the century and beginning of the 20th privileged one type of landscape over the other and changed whose agency was most politically and economically important. Still, the nation–held together by its landscape–was central to historical writing.

Then, landscapes shifted from those with national boundaries to imaginary spaces of shared experiences. These landscapes, according to the various camps who sought to explain them throughout the 20th century, “expanded the horizons of engineering, politics, and scholarship,” “manufacture[d] an illusion of political consensus,” was “a tool for creating identity and marshalling citizens to work and to war,” “intervened between humans and their sense of reality,” and/or “charts the modern struggles of economic and political centralization.” In this context, the spatial turn took place in the postwar years and created a new focus on “the description of space, its experience and management.”

A great example of one of the spatial turn’s products is Jason Farman’s book on technology and space, which mainly sits in the realm of seeking to understand how people understand their reality through changing understandings of their environment. In Mobile Interface Theory: Embodied Space and Locative Media, Jason Farman examines how mobile interfaces “work in tandem with bodies and locales in a process of inscribing meaning into our contemporary social and spatial interactions” (1).

Farman begins his study by providing the interesting historical context of mobile media using the example of the pocket watch. Pocket watches, especially after the creation of an international standard, allowed individuals to have “a sense of global space and time while changing what it meant to travel and live in local space” (4). Technologies such as CB radios and smartphones created similar cultural shifts that helped connect (or sometimes disconnect) individuals with society. Ultimately, Farman notes, the exact form of the technology is not important; rather, it is its effect on conceptions of embodied space. This allows Farman’s theory to apply not only to current technologies that will likely become obsolete within a few years, but those that come after as well. By focusing on theory and not on the practical uses of current technology, Farman’s book becomes evergreen — a smart move in the digital history field!

This book’s most interesting contribution is Farman’s conclusion that technology = movement and movement = progress. Basically, people have always complained that the latest development was creating distance between people and their community. Farman argues that instead of thinking about movement as progress, it is more useful to think of movement and dwelling, which allows us to understand stillness as a type of movement as well. Like the historiography of spectacle, Farman’s book helps us to understand how our objects (which now include the nonmaterial object of data) and our relationships with them affect our concepts of identity and reality.

Discussion:

In what contexts is the personal computing interface still preferred to the pervasive computing interface?

How do movies, video games, and other types of media influence how we understand space? If we play or view them on a portable console or phone, does that change things compared to playing or viewing on a couch at home? Does this differ from reading books that describe location?

Farman discusses embodiment and text messaging in Chapter 5. Is the practice of embodiment different in text messages than in handwritten letters?

6 Replies to “What is the Spatial Turn? Plus Theory Fun with Farman”

  1. How do movies, video games, and other types of media influence how we understand space? If we play or view them on a portable console or phone, does that change things compared to playing or viewing on a couch at home? Does this differ from reading books that describe location?

    I think that these types of media might have affected how people perceive space more than it has changed the actual concept of space. With movies, a travel sequence can be skipped or take only a few moments, which can leave the viewer with a perception that the world is much smaller than it really is, able to be traversed in brief periods of time. This can happen in video games too, but there are also open world games and mobile games that require GPS that can make the world feel smaller than it really is (or bigger if it feels like forever between completing tasks). I think that playing/viewing on a mobile device will have more of an impact than doing the same from a stationary position, as it can make the time fly during long journeys and make it seem as though the space between departure and arrival is much smaller. As far as books go, I think this discussion has more to do with the reader’s own imagination. Someone who can visualize the details of a book quickly might be able to perceive space faster, yet others might do this more slowly. I still think though that the digital media, especially those with visuals provided to the user, has the most impact on the perception of space.

    Farman discusses embodiment and text messaging in Chapter 5. Is the practice of embodiment different in text messages than in handwritten letters?

    I feel like there is a huge difference in embodiment between text messages and letters. With letters, you receive them at home after you’ve checked the mail, making it a fairly consistent scenario when you are receiving them. While writing a letter, it is likely from a seated position at a desk or table. This creates a consistency because of the format that will lead to a consistency of the way that the message is embodied. Yet a text, similar to the Tweet embodiments mentioned in Farman’s piece, lead to a more dynamic embodiment rather than the static one created by letters. Who knows what you’ll be doing when you receive a text, or what you’ll be doing when you send it? This makes the embodiment of a text more unpredictable, which I think definitely makes it different from a handwritten letter.

  2. Kirk Savage’s Monument Wars examines how memorials move from landscape to space, and how creating spaces opened the experience people and groups have at memorials. I think this creates an interesting way to look at digital projects: whether they are creating stagnant spaces or whether they are creating dynamic spaces open to experience, interpretation, and conversation.
    The question as to how space is perceived in video games and movies is an interesting, and my thoughts on that have really been influenced by the screen essentialist issue we got into a few weeks back. When we sit down to play games, and we enter into those worlds, we start creating a sense of space that does not exist. It’s just information being presented on a screen. And yet I know exactly how to get to Riften from Whiterun, the same way I know how to get to the metro from my apartment. Human beings construct the idea of space – which I think is something pointed out by an earlier project about space being created by a Houston newspaper (the Bevins articles). With the right information and collaborative digital work, I think it would be very possible for historians to create a digital historical space, in the same way the Assassin’s Creed series has been for years.

    1. It’s interesting you mention how “human beings construct the idea of space.” There’s a super interesting (to me at least) part of my favorite monograph, Karen Halttunen’s Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination that discusses how space suddenly became very important in murder-mystery narratives in the nineteenth century. Maps, architectural sketches, and floor plans became crucial to telling the story of murder so that readers could make their own evaluations of the case. These are the types of things we take for granted a bit, the ability to visualize a location, forgetting that the visualization is also a cultural product. Navigating virtual spaces originated with navigating drawn out spaces that came from wanting to do things like determine who committed a crime.

  3. How do movies, video games, and other types of media influence how we understand space? If we play or view them on a portable console or phone, does that change things compared to playing or viewing on a couch at home? Does this differ from reading books that describe location?

    As time goes on, I think more institutions will start to utilize video games and other forms of media to situate visitors in the institution’s focused time and place. By “confusing” visitors where they are in space with immersive technologies, a different experience and understanding is gleaned on a subject. For example, you could go to a museum and read about trench warfare in WWI, but how cooler would it be to slap on a VR head set and run around the trenches? Through this technology, you would no longer be in a museum exhibit but it some expansive field in the middle of war-torn Europe! This is not to say that the traditional exhibit space does not offer fuel for the imagination; however, video games and the like could add a different element. For some, picturing things in their head that have been read is hard. These technologies could bridge that imaginative gap.
    In the Russick reading, the combination of history and technology is attempted with his augmented reality app. This is the way to go to keep history alive and “current,” so to speak. By having an app on a portable console/phone, audiences are encouraged to walk around and interact with specific sites. This also come up in the Durington and Collins. These experiences are available through technology, which could not be related necessarily to a video to watch at home on your couch.
    It’s really all about the immersive experiences that technology allows by distorting people’s realties so they no longer know where they are in time and space.

  4. How do movies, video games, and other types of media influence how we understand space? If we play or view them on a portable console or phone, does that change things compared to playing or viewing on a couch at home? Does this differ from reading books that describe location?

    This question is interesting to me because another class I am in discussed concept earlier this week. In my Public History Practicum class we examined an app service called Detour. Here is the link if you want to check it out. I am not sure if it will embed correctly in this comment: https://www.detour.com/

    This app is meant to be an interactive walking tour of cities. It is a guided experience complete with videos, mapping functions, and directed stopping locations. It also begged the question: will this change the way people interact with the space around them? Instead of heading out into a city and exploring, digital components like this impact people’s relationship to their spatial environment similar to what Farman is saying. Although it is amazing that technology offers so many tools, I think people need to begin thinking about the consequences of being less present in time and space, instead experiencing everything through virtual guides.

  5. How do movies, video games, and other types of media influence how we understand space? If we play or view them on a portable console or phone, does that change things compared to playing or viewing on a couch at home? Does this differ from reading books that describe location?

    I think video games in particular offer many ways to change how we view space, some of which are only just beginning to be experimented with. Compared to other forms of media, video games offer far more opportunity to interact with and change the spaces they explore, which may be useful in allowing gamers to empathize with historical actors, if those interactions are restricted to those available to those actors. They may also offer different participants more fundamentally different perspectives than more traditional media. While all media consumption involves some amount of subjectivity, by virtue of requiring the interpretation of that media, games may deepen that by displaying fundamentally different images of the same space to players on different teams, or who have otherwise been set apart.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *