Looking for the “There” There in Spatial History

The semester at Harvard speeds by all too quickly. One week, our digital history seminar has just begun; now, as the leaves begin to turn, and the evenings grow longer and longer, we’re already knee-deep into discussions about mapping and various spatial history projects. At the same time that I continue to re-write the book manuscript stemming from my dissertation, I’m also hard at work – and delighted in doing so – building in a digital component to Developing Powers. Using the huge amounts of data that were released in the Afghan ‘Death Lists’ last week along with available data on refugee movement across South and Central Asia in the 1970s and 1980s, I hope to create an interactive platform for examining forced migration and mass killing in Afghanistan during a decade that turned the region upside down.

Along the way, however, we’ve been forced to pause to ask whether such spatial history projects (or even components to conventional projects) necessarily indulge in what one might call the reductionist nature of GIS epistemology: they locate all historical phenomena primarily as ‘spatial,’ obscuring the equally important and rich linkages that events and texts have beyond their geo-location. To what extent (so begins the prompt for this week) do existing GIS projects address and cope with this difficulty, and how might our own projects rise to the challenge?

It’s a big question, but one that some of the sites we’ve explored this week – Stanford’s Spatial History Project, HyperCities, and ORBIS (a fascinating cartography of how long it took, and how expensive it was, to move goods and people across the Roman Empire) – necessarily raise. And without sounding like a Luddite, I have some sincere doubts about the attempt to frame so much in history as being primarily ‘spatial.’ In some cases, I dare to say, events were important precisely for not being spatial at all. In other cases, an obsession with demonstrating competence in spatial history turns out to be a myopia towards linking spatial history with other methodologies. Yes, yes: the work is important and good. But at a time when many core competencies and disciplines in the humanities are under attack – the dissolution of language departments comes as one recent example in a pattern – I am skeptical of attempts to brand spatial history as fundamentally new (as opposed to the fuddy-duddies who are so outmoded as to actually read things, learn languages, and – the horror – engage with books more than 200 pages long).

It’s easier to ground this discussion in an example or two. Consider the ‘Holocaust Geographies‘ project, being led by Anne Knowles and Albert Giordano (Middlebury and Texas State, respectively) in conjunction with Erik Steiner at Stanford. ‘The Holocaust was a profoundly geographical event that caused mass displacement and migration,’ begins the opening statement to the project. I’m not exactly sure what ‘profoundly geographical event’ means here, though. At first glance, all events outside of a general intellectual history are geographical, and even then, once one begins to investigate the linkages between intellectual centers, universities, publishers, and so on, it seems like it’s possible to describe almost any event as ‘geographical’ in character. It’s not clear whether ‘the geographical’ is the primary characteristic of the Holocaust.

Indeed, in a sense one could argue that the majority of what we know as the Holocaust was ungeographical, in the sense that many victims were killed not at sites (of the kind that the Holocaust Geographies project seeks to model in agonizing detail), but rather in mass shootings in anonymous locations in present-day Belarus and Ukraine. In that sense the event remains placeless in another sense: given the memory hole and difficult research conditions in Belarus today, precisely the kind of archaeological work needed to reconstruct the place-ness of the Holocaust in the forests and swamps of Eastern Europe remains challenging. Ironically, writing a history of the murder of European Jews through the sites that the Holocaust Geographies project proposes – Auschwitz, transports from France and Italy, ghettoes in Hungary, and evacuations to the west from Auschwitz – actually writes out the Eastern European-ness of the event (a Holocaust that’s more rural, more Yiddish, more Polish, more Belarusian, and more Soviet …) in favor of a more conventional (for Anglophone audiences) narrative that focuses more on Germany, France, Italy, and urban Eastern Europe, rather than on the places, languages, and identities that were really at play for the victims. If one were to draw a north-south line through the spaces the project purports to interrogate, more Jews died ‘outside’ (to the East) of the project’s space than inside of it, to the West. The perceived novelty of ‘the spatial’ here seems to mask the actual methodological conservatism of the project.

More than that, one could raise a (boutique?) administrative criticism of these spatial history projects. While they are often led by tenured professors at universities, one cannot but read the language of the Spatial History Project or HyperCities and be struck by the ease with which they traffic in a dialect of Principal Investigators, research assistants, open-ended projects, and, obviously, ‘laboratories.’ In short, they seek to sound like Big Science, again feeding unintentionally into a rhetorical delegitimization of traditional (‘outmoded,’ ‘solitary,’ ‘analog’) humanities and social science research. Studied more closely, however, the organization of some of these endeavors actually hews more to conservative lines. At Stanford’s Spatial History Lab, the team of ‘researchers’ turns out to overwhelmingly consist of tenured Stanford professors, all of whom received tenure through … a monograph published with a traditional and prestigious academic press. While an army of perspicacious and talented graduate students works within this structure, there remains a difference between ‘lab staff’ (untenured workers, albeit often with Master’s degrees and significant Digital History experience) and the main contingent of ‘researchers’ – tenured professors.

In short, the conservative impulses of the American university remain strong even as new projects speak a language of administrative reorganization and change. HyperCities is more ecumenical with a mix of tenured faculty, ‘independent fine art professionals’ from Los Angeles, and the salaried but untenured technical types which populate these projects. HyperCities appears to outsource payment of undergraduate research assistants through a UCLA-administered competitive grant process, whereby undergraduates apply for pay, and also hires on unpaid interns. In short, professionally few of these projects actually seem to be an exit valve, in spite of the talk at conferences about Digital Humanities being a growth field. Rather, what we see is DH factually being seen as a nice add-on that the tenured (because they wrote a book) professors do in addition to their ‘normal work’ – sticking in national or thematic fields, writing articles for journals organized along disciplinary lines that don’t include DH, and so on.

What to do to avoid these pitfalls in my own work? I’m not yet at the stage to be offering sweeping administrative reforms to American university departments: mastering ArcGIS and some of the tools from last week is about all I can handle at my current pay grade. Regarding my first point, however – not falling into the temptation of labeling everything as spatial and then not actually paying attention to spatial problems in one’s own research – it strikes me as important (if also obvious) to have the modesty to allow the data that I find from my sources (the Death Lists and refugee lists) to help structure the kind of argument I make in the main text of Developing Powers. This might sound like banal advice. But I am often struck, in reading treatments of Afghanistan’s modern history (less so in the Soviet literature than in the American) how un-spatial, or weirdly spatialized, it is. As a result of the Second Anglo-Afghan War and decades of British and Pakistani strategic thinking on the frontier, we hear heaps about the Khyber Pass, even though it’s not where most of the killing or forced migration took place in the 1980s. The same is true of the obsession with Helmand Province post-2009, even though (as security experts pointed out at the time) that province contains less than five percent of Afghanistan’s population.

Hence, as I proceed with this project – and especially lacking the kind of hard-won on-the-ground expertise that anthropologists like Noah Coburn have provided for the field – it seems important to highlight in my writing the stories of the places that the data shows were most hard-hit by killing or flight. I have many tales from those regions, thanks to my Soviet materials (even if we have to read between the lines), and the data I have increasingly from the Death Lists. Now comes to unify these sources – themselves mediating between Moscow, Kabul, and the countryside – and tell a story that does the events justice.

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One thought on “Looking for the “There” There in Spatial History

  1. Tony Grafton

    Yeah, this is a real problem. Once you have a hammer, it’s not just that everything looks like a nail: apparently, you also have to tell everyone in the world how great your hammer is. There’s also the fact that a spatial vision of history is not exactly new (hello, Annales school! Montesquieu! Bodin!). On the credit side, at Stanford it’s not just grad students but undergraduates who work on these projects and learn the tools–a modest version of which can be used, as my Stanford-PhD-holding colleague Yair Mintzker and others, without all the grand trappings.

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