Hi friends, hope you are staying well—body, mind, and soul—and safe at home! I don’t know about you, but the readings on place, space, and human connectivity for this week felt either particularly cruel or like a digital vacation (or, if you’re like me, oscillating between the two).
In any case, please join me in a discussion of space and why, starting about a century and a half ago, Western scholars of history, religion, psychology, etc. began to take up the topic of spatiality. In the readings this week, Jo Guldi and Mark Tebeau introduce us to both the origins and examples of the application of the spatial turn in the digital age.
Jo Guldi’s “What is the Spatial Turn,” tells us—you guessed it—what exactly the spatial turn was (gotta love that sign-posting). According to Guldi, starting in ~1880 and lasting through the mid-twentieth century, Western scholars from multiple disciplines—particularly the arts and social sciences—began to consider the relationship between peoples/societies and the land. In fact, they considered not only the relationship between a person and the land, but how that land could and did facilitate connections to other people. He brings up the discussion of “the commons” (any student of history or poli-sci likely remembers a class lecture of the “Tragedy of the Commons”—essentially the “this is why we can’t have nice things” of the 1960s), using it to model how historians, in particular, began to conduct close-readings of sources on societal structure to glean information about the importance of the space societies inhabited. Guldi’s second article, “The Spatial Turn in History,” breaks the trajectory of historian’s explorations of spatiality more closely. According to Guldi that trajectory looked like the following:
- Land within the context of the nation (a top-down, elitist narrative) –>
- Land within the context of the “city” (which allowed historians to “foreground middle-class actors” –>
- “Imagined” or “Sensuous Landscapes,” such as leisure spaces, suburbia, or even the “home” (which facilitated the entry of a broad range of historic actors into the narrative) –>
- Space within the context of the “infrastructure state” or how the manipulation of territory results in new/different relationships between people and the land
Guldi notes in “What is the Spatial Turn,” that since the 1970s, questions of power in relation to space have been the focus of many social histories. Indeed, we would be hard pressed to get out of a seminar book discussion without identifying how the author treated those subjects. Yet, not until the Digital Age have scholars had the opportunity to interpret and represent these spatial histories in a manner that emphasizes their spatiality. Writing about events that occurred within a space is not nearly as impactful as seeing an image that captured the event within the space is not nearly as impactful as seeing both the narrative and image imposed on a geospatial representation of the space itself. Each layer of interpretation provides the scholar/public a more complicated and (arguably) “complete,” multi-sensory lens into history.
The primary question I had after reading Guldi’s articles is about how spatiality has been represented in non-Western scholarship? Western spatiality is very much wrapped up in place—physical locations seen through a predominantly colonial lens. However, there are other ways of conceiving of space beyond the physical that not even the imagined/sensuous landscapes of Western scholarship seem to get at. I imagine that including conceptions of “space” outside of the Western tradition would challenge the physicality of place-ness of how we conceive of the spatial.
Mark Tebeau’s article, “Listening to the City: Oral History and Place in the Digital Era,” discusses a great example of how spatial history can be represented and interpreted using digital tools. Cleveland Historical, a “dynamic, layered, and contextual storytelling endeavor,” combines maps, multimedia (oral histories, music, images), and contextual text (felt redundant/wrong but left it) to “curate” Cleveland’s history. This project is collaborative in that multiple users can contribute “pins” to the map after being trained, and is intended to elevate aural interpretation to the same level as visual. Because this project is mobile, users can go on tours and stand in the “pinned” spaces while accessing contextual information online. As Tebeau refers to it, Cleveland Historical is a “living museum” the size of the city and its strength lie in both its collaborative nature of democratizing the historical interpretive process AND in its utility in presenting history in a multi-sensory, spatially-oriented way.
I chose to use the “Cuyahoga River Fire” pin as an example because Tebeau addresses it, specifically in his text to make the point that it’s not totally clear “whether geolocation even provides the best way to contextualize historical stories.” He argues that, in the example of the burning of the Cuyahoga River, “placing the story at an abandoned railroad bridge along the Cuyahoga River (as we do now) may be physically accurate but remote from a location where its interpretive connections are richer.” However, I believe it is worth arguing that sites of experience—regardless of whether or not the site is one of many or, alternately, the physical site itself no longer exists–have memory and experience embedded within them. Ultimately, spaces themselves can facilitate the interpretation, and rather than shifting the location away from the space in which an event occurred, we might challenge ourselves to attempt more creative interpretation before considering relocation. For instance, the Cuyahoga River Fire page could be used to prompt deep thinking about the impact of pollution in Cleveland’s history. It could be connected to other locations where pollution runs unchecked, introduce the narratives of those who are particularly vulnerable to environmental racism or discrimination (thus ensuring class, race, gender, and other categories of experience and analysis are elevated). What is so encouraging about a borne-digital project like Cleveland Historical is that it is ultimately iterative—constantly evolving, growing, becoming (ideally) more representative—and has the capacity to incorporate a many connected, overlapping, layered histories interpreted in myriad ways.
I’m interested to hear if, especially in the process of drafting our projects—particularly those who are doing digital projects—you have come across any multifaceted digital history projects that incorporate the spatial and narrative in engaging ways?