Some thoughts on the GeoHumanities

The following is the text for an introduction I made at a public event of this year’s Space and Place theme fellows at the Humanities Center at Northeastern. More thoughts on the GeoHumanities are forthcoming.


This year’s fellows are exploring the theme of space and place in an interdisciplinary context. To me this represents an exciting opportunity to start a conversation across disciplines at an opportune moment. Across the humanities and social sciences we are experiencing a flourishing of work that takes spatiality seriously. Space and place have often been seen as either a setting for other, more important, processes in culture and society to take place or, alternatively, as the outcome of these processes – a kind of end product. A series of developments both within disciplines and across disciplines have changed this in fundamental ways.

First of all we have seen what is called the spatial turn across the humanities and social scientists. This refers to a general recognition that social and cultural life do not happen on the head of a pin but are thoroughly spatial. The spatial turn made its presence felt, for instance, in the study of literature, where space and place had been too often relegated to mere setting – the least active or interesting component in the assemblage of literary texts. Pioneering work by scholars working across disciplines but rooted in literature –scholars such as Raymond Williams and Edward Said – placed the geography of and in literature at the center of our understanding of the relationship between text and context in ways which enlivened our reading of the canon and started to introduce writing from the previously excluded margins.[1] In History we saw the emergence of spatial history with the magisterial work of Richard White and, particularly, Paul Carter’s Road to Botany Bay – subtitled “an essay in spatial history”.[2] Feminist scholars such as Elizabeth Grosz and Iris Marion Young wove space and place into their accounts of the construction of masculine worlds and their radical alternatives.[3] The spatial turn was given a significant boost when Michel Foucault, whose work of prisons, the asylum and the clinic were all quite radically spatial in nature, became an evangelist for the importance of space in an essay published in 1984.

The great obsession of the nineteenth century was, as we know, history: with its themes of development and of suspension, of crisis, and cycle, themes of the ever-accumulating past, with its great preponderance of dead men and the menacing glaciation of the world. […] The present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space. We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed. We are at a moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein.[4]

Soon space was everywhere. Sociologists and anthropologists, aware of course, of their inheritance of the works of the Chicago School of Sociology and the ethnomethodology of Erving Goffman on the one hand, and Levi-Strauss on the other, experienced a renewed interest in the way space works its ways into the crevices of social and cultural processes as an active agent in the production, maintenance and transformation of everyday life.[5] This was given an added boost by the eager take up of the problem of space in the nascent cultural studies and through the translation of Henri Lefebvre’s foundational book, The Production of Space.[6] Even the more scientific ends of social science, which had long been set on arriving at law-like universal generalizations for human behavior, began to recognize that the space in which social things happen is neither the mythical isotropic plain of many models nor the head of a pin danced on by angels. Forms of spatial modeling become more sophisticated, starting with cluster analysis and moving to a general recognition of the importance of place, mobility and spatial variation.[7]

Space and place have made their presences felt across all the central research themes of this University. In Health research there has been increasing interest in the role of space and environment in realms ranging from the currently vogue field of epigenetics in which places impact directly on the very genetic make up of our bodies, to the role of place and landscape in the treatment of illness – in so-called therapeutic landscapes.[8] In the arena of Security studies we have seen everything from the problematic impact of the so-called “broken-windows” theory of criminal and deviant behavior to the development of pattern of life analysis that allows drone operators to assess the likely guilt of people at a distance by recording their movements in space over time. Much of this I find deeply troubling but it is also spatial theorists, inspired by Foucault of course, who are revealing the way space is being used by the security state to impinge on any remaining remnants of truly public space we have left. Either way, space and place are at the center of the debates.[9] And Sustainability is possibly the easiest of the three themes to make a spatial case for. The recent recognition of the Anthropocene as a geological era in which humans are the main actors has led to a lively debate about the kinds of places we want to live in, and that we want future generations to live in. Sustainability is about the key issue of how we dwell in the world – it is a question of place.[10]

While the spatial turn is now thirty years old a new ingredient has recently been added. The Digital Humanities combine a level of technical expertise in the handling of large, even Big, datasets with sophisticated spatial analysis and representation through Geographic Information Systems – or GIS. The recent embrace of GIS and other digital tools by the traditionally technology averse disciplines of English and History is connected to the theoretical recognition of the importance of spatiality.[11] In addition, the sudden explosion in geocoded data, thanks to the mobile devices we all carry in our pockets, is allowing new realms of social scientific analysis right down to the level of the individual to open up. Some of this is troubling and linked to issues of surveillance and corporatization of everyday life, but there are also new creative possibilities for using information that always comes with longitude and latitude. Forms of counter-mapping and critical spatial science are possible. Creative artists have been among the first to become aware of the potential of locative media and geocoded data in raising questions about the role that space and place play in our everyday lives.

So this combination of influences across the disciplines, linking the humanities, the social sciences and the creative arts have led to what has recently been called then GeoHumanities – a new interdisciplinary endeavor with space and place at its heart that links decades of critical thought following the spatial turn to new developments in our digital capabilities.[12] It is in this context that this year’s Fellows scheme in the Humanities Center has been planned.

[1] Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (London: Hogarth, 1985, 1973); Edward W. Said, Orientalism, 1st Vintage Books ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1979). See also John Barrell, The Dark Side of the Landscape : The Rural Poor in English Paintings, 1730-1840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980); The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place 1730-1840 : An Approach to the Poetry of John Clare (Cambridge [Eng.]: University Press, 1972). S. S. Friedman, “Periodizing Modernism: Postcolonial Modernities and the Space/Time Borders of Modernist Studies,” Modernism-Modernity 13, no. 3 (2006); Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees : Abstract Models for a Literary History (London ; New York: Verso, 2005).

[2] Richard White, Railroaded : The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, 1st ed. ed. (New York ; London: W.W. Norton, 2011); Paul Carter, The Road to Botany Bay : An Essay in Spatial History (London: Faber, 1987). See also William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: Norton, 1991); James Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 1998).

[3] Elizabeth Grosz, Architecture from the Outside: Essays on Virtual and Real Space (Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 2001); Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990).

[4] Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” Diacritics 16, no. 1 (1986). See also Discipline and Punish : The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1979); The Birth of the Clinic; an Archaeology of Medical Perception, 1st American ed., World of Man (New York,: Pantheon Books, 1973); Madness and Civilization : A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (New York: Vintage, 1988, 1965).

[5] Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, University of Edinburgh. Social Sciences Research Centre. Monograph No. 2 (Edinburgh,: University of Edinburgh Social Sciences Research Centre, 1956); Robert Ezra Park et al., The City, University of Chicago Studies in Urban Sociology (Chicago, Ill.,: The University of Chicago Press, 1925); Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques : Anthropological Study of Primitive Societies in Brazil ([S.l.]: Atheneum, 1963).

[6] Lawrence Grossberg, “Cultural Studies and/in New Worlds,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 10(1993); Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford, UK ; Cambridge: Blackwell, 1991).

[7] A. S. Fotheringham and C. Brunsdon, “Local Forms of Spatial Analysis,” Geographical Analysis 31, no. 4 (1999); T. Schwanen, M. P. Kwan, and F. Ren, “How Fixed Is Fixed? Gendered Rigidity of Space-Time Constraints and Geographies of Everyday Activities,” Geoforum 39, no. 6 (2008).

[8] Wilbert M. Gesler, Healing Places (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003); Nessa Carey, The Epigenetics Revolution : How Modern Biology Is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease, and Inheritance (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

[9] Oscar Newman, Defensible Space; Crime Prevention through Urban Design (New York,: Macmillan, 1972); Stephen Graham, Cities under Siege : The New Military Urbanism (London: Verso, 2010); Anna Minton, Ground Control : Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-First-Century City (London: Penguin, 2009).

[10] Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects : Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis, MN.: University of Minnesota Press, 2013); Carl A. Maida, Sustainability and Communities of Place (New York, N.Y. ; Oxford: Berghahn Books Ltd, 2007).

[11] Anne Kelly Knowles, Geographies of the Holocaust, The Spatial Humanities (Bloomington IN.: Indiana University Press, 2014), text; Anne Kelly Knowles and Amy Hillier, Placing History : How Maps, Spatial Data, and Gis Are Changing Historical Scholarship, 1st ed. (Redlands, Calif.: ESRI Press, 2008); D. A. Smith, R. Cordell, and E. M. Dillon, “Infectious Texts: Modeling Text Reuse in Nineteenth-Century Newspapers,” 2013 Ieee International Conference on Big Data (2013).

[12] M. J. Dear, Geohumanities : Art, History and Text at the Edge of Place (London: Routledge, 2011).

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