Spatial Humanities

Plate of Wards 23 & 25, City of Brooklyn, Via NYPL Maps:

Today’s New York Times featured an article about the emergence of a “new” field of study called the “Spatial Humanities.” “Like the crew on the starship Enterprise,” the Times‘ Patricia Cohen writes, “humanists are exploring a new frontier of the scholarly universe: space.” I hope the fearsome “Temporal Humanist” gang learns to get along with these new kids.

The Spatial Humanities, despite what its rather peremptory name might lead you to believe, doesn’t have a monopoly on all things spatial. Such a claim would be silly. Scholars — in the humanities and the social and hard sciences — practitioners, artists, etc., have long focused their attention on space.

What these humanist Trekkies are doing that’s different is using digital mapping tools, particularly GIS, and developing new ways to “spatialize” their research material — e.g., plotting the scenes of a narrative on a map, or posting historical photos and audio clips to a map — to address both timeless and new questions in the humanities. The Times article quotes geographer Ann Kelly Knowles, who says: “Mapping spatial information reveals part of human history that otherwise we couldn’t possibly know… It enables you to see patterns and information that are literally invisible.” I’d prefer a slightly more modest claim: creating maps using a combination of GIS, historical maps, sensor data, and other resources, we could possibly see spatial dimensions of history, or of contemporary reality, that might otherwise be difficult to discern. And layering this “data,” then analyzing the intersections of those layers, could enable us to identify meaningful patterns that might be “literally invisible” — they could be created by sounds, or atmospheric conditions — or they could be merely immediately unobservable.

I think it’s important to maintain a degree of modesty in these pursuits: Spatial Humanists certainly aren’t the first people making the “spatial turn,” nor are they the first group to turn a critical eye to maps and mapping technologies, or to use those technologies as valuable research tools. Geographers have been at this for quite a while. Archaeologists and architects and other folks, too.

Yet there are some really exciting potentials in this work. For me, the potential for simultaneity — for layering resources, “data,” arguments, etc., and giving users the option of turning those layers on and off — allows both those creating the maps and those reviewing the completed maps to appreciate the “overdeterminedness,” the richness, the convergence of forces, that make things happen…in space and time. These are, as David Brodenhamer puts it in the Times article, “’deep maps,’ which can capture more than one perspective.” Historical events, demographic shifts, climatic changes — all, if plotted out on a map, show themselves to be highly spatio-temporally complex phenomena, hard to sum up, hard to pin down in a linear narrative.

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