Space, Place and the Triumph of the Humanities.
Over this academic year the annual theme of the Humanities Center fellowship program has been Space and Place. As a geographer displaced to History and International Affairs here at Northeastern it has been a delight to be involved in an interdisciplinary discussion of these themes that I believe are so important to life in the 21st Century. Our conversations have criss-crossed the humanities and social sciences in ways which point towards the richness of an emerging inter-disciplinary field known as GeoHumanities. The rise of GeoHumanities has been prompted by recent emerging techniques in Digital Humanities and various forms of Geo coding and mapping. It was these developments that led the eminent Professor of English, Stanley Fish to declare, possibly a little prematurely, “The Triumph of the Humanities” in a New York Times op ed piece back in 2011. He was responding to the publication of the edited collection GeoHumanities: Art, History, Text at the Edge of Place – a volume that arose from discussions within the Association of American Geographers.
Fish was excited about a number of technical and theoretical developments that allowed time and space to be represented as constantly in co-constitutive motion. He called this new project a synthesis of Geographic Information Science (GIS) and history that brings to the fore a geographic imagination and poetics that asserts the active and dynamic role of space and place in most, if not all, important questions. It is worth quoting at length his confident assertions.
“What this all suggests is that while we have been anguishing over the fate of the humanities, the humanities have been busily moving into, and even colonizing, the fields that were supposedly displacing them. In the ‘70s and the ‘80s the humanities exported theory to the social sciences and (with less influence) to the sciences; many disciplines saw a pitched battle between the new watchwords — perspective, contingency, dispersion, multi-vocality, intertextuality — and the traditional techniques of dispassionate observation, the collection of evidence, the drawing of warranted conclusions and the establishing of solid fact. Now the dust has settled and the invaded disciplines have incorporated much of what they resisted. Propositions that once seemed outlandish — all knowledge is mediated, even our certainties are socially constructed — are now routinely asserted in precincts where they were once feared as the harbingers of chaos and corrosive relativism.
One could say then that the humanities are the victors in the theory wars; nearly everyone now dances to their tune. But this conceptual triumph has not brought with it a proportionate share of resources or institutional support. Perhaps administrators still think of the humanities as the province of precious insights that offer little to those who are charged with the task of making sense of the world. Volumes like “GeoHumanities” tell a different story, and it is one that cannot be rehearsed too often”.
It was certainly heartwarming to read Professor Fish’s words. But it was also a little strange. To someone such as myself it felt as though he has just discovered the wheel. It is ironic that a term such as GeoHumanities should arise as a result of the technical ability to process and display data in new ways. I prefer to see the term as an affirmation of several thousand years of humanistic thought – a history that I will now rehearse in two minutes or so.
A concern with space and place was at the center of classical thought. Aristotle famously argued that place takes precendence over all things because everything that exists must be somewhere “because what is not is nowhere – where for instance is a goat-stag or a sphinx?” Greek philosophers and historians were also geographers. Herodotus, claimed as the father of both anthropology and history, spent much of his time trying to find the source of the Nile and might reasonably be claimed as the father of geography too. Meanwhile, the librarian of Alexandria, Eratosthenes, was busy measuring the earth and developing the system we now know as latitude and longitude and which locates your every thought and move through your cell phone. He is known as a mathematician, geographer, poet, astronomer and music theorist.
The first person to call himself a geographer was Strabo of Amasia – who was a philosopher and historian as well as a geographer. The teaching of Aristotle on the fundamental importance of place was revived in Europe by Albertus Magnus, the German Dominican scholar who tutored Thomas Aquinas. His De Natura Locorum (the Nature of Places) combined cosmology with natural science to insist on the importance of location to everything. He was a philosopher, theologian and Catholic saint. And then there’s Immanuel Kant – most definitely a philosopher who spent forty years giving lectures on geography. This story could go on and includes the great Muslim scholar Ibn Khaldun claimed as one of the fathers of history, sociology and economics as well as the unnamed Chinese cartographers of the Han Dynasty. And many more.
I tell this story to make three points. One is that inquiry in the humanities is rooted in a time before disciplines when key thinkers were unhampered by the disciplinary boundaries we live with today. All of those I have mentioned today are claimed my multiple disciplines. Second – in each case some notions of space and place were central to their intellectual endeavours. Spatial thinking was not the invention of either the spatial turn in the humanities or the advent of geocoding and GIS. Third, in many of these cases, forms of representation were key to their endeavours. What GIS is to us now, the invention of longitude and latitude, papyrus or cartographic pens were to them. Fourth, this interest in space and place constantly matched something we might today refer to as humanistic – an interest in the particularities of place – with something we might now call scientific – the measurements and exactitudes of cartographic representations of space. During the Renaissance in northern Italy the arts of cartography and landscape painting were reborn hand in hand with the architecture of Alberti and the science of Leonardo. Humanism – as a world view reborn in the Renaissance – was a world view that included both the arts and the sciences within it. These are entangled in Raphael’s painting of the School at Athens from 1509 which includes Strabo and Ptolomy holding models of the world in the bottom right corner.
Which is all to say that it would be too easy to take a reductive view of the GeoHumanities as emerging fully formed in the 21st Century as a result of the sudden popularity of the prefix ‘Geo’ which is taken to mean something like ‘locatable on the earth’s surface’. Everything is geocoded and geolocatable. Things can be geotagged. “Geo” of course, comes from the Greek for ‘earth’ or ‘ground’ and it is this, much older Geo that I would like to see included in the term GeoHumanities. The twin dangers facing this new endeavor are first that it is too easily reduced to a technical exercise in using GIS for typically humanistic endeavours without any of the academic context I have pointed too in this talk and, second, that it ignores all these developments and becomes a version of the sub-discipline I know and love called ‘cultural geography’ – just given a different name. I hope that, like this year’s fellowship here at Northeastern, the GeoHumanities is genuinely interdisciplinary or even postdisciplinary. I hope that it does take the remarkable abilities of the Digital Humanities seriously but does not mistake them for something entirely new on the face of the earth. Finally I hope that it does, indeed, help further what Stanley Fish calls ‘the triumph of the humanities’. I do not, however, believe that this triumph is a product of the theory wars of the 1980s (though I have no doubt that the last thirty years of insisting on the importance of space and place for social and cultural theory is massively important). I think the rise of the GeoHumanities is more the current instantiation of humanistic thought that has had spatial thinking at its heart that arose some 2000 years earlier.
It is with this in mind that I have taken on the editorship of the new AAG journal, GeoHumanities along with my colleague Deborah Dixon in Glasgow. Despite its home in an august scholarly association of geographers its editorial board will be genuinely interdisciplinary including both scholars and creative practitioners. It is the next phase in the process that the GeoHumanities volume Stanley Fish referred to was a key part of. I hope it can be as lively and inspiring as the conversations the space and place fellows have engaged in over the past year.
Bodenhamer D J, Corrigan J, Harris T M, 2010 The spatial humanities : GIS and the future of humanities scholarship (Indiana University Press, Bloomington)
Bodenhamer D J, Corrigan J, Harris T M, 2015 Deep maps and spatial narratives (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana)
Casey E S, 1997 The fate of place : a philosophical history (University of California Press, Berkeley)
Cosgrove D E, 1984 Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape (Croom Helm, London)
Cresswell T, 2013 Geographic thought : a critical introduction (Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford)
Dear M J, 2011 GeoHumanities : art, history and text at the edge of place (Routledge, London)
Glacken C J, 1967 Traces on the Rhodian shore; nature and culture in Western thought from ancient times to the end of the eighteenth century (University of California Press, Berkeley,)
Knowles A K, 2014 Geographies of the Holocaust (Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN.)
Knowles A K, Hillier A, 2008 Placing history : how maps, spatial data, and GIS are changing historical scholarship (ESRI Press, Redlands, Calif.)
Relph E C, 1981 Rational landscapes and humanistic geography (Croom Helm, London)
Unwin P T H, 1992 The place of geography (Longman Scientific & Technical, Harlow)
 Dear M J, 2011 GeoHumanities : art, history and text at the edge of place (Routledge, London)
 Casey E S, 1997 The fate of place : a philosophical history (University of California Press, Berkeley)
 For accounts of this history see Cresswell T, 2013 Geographic thought : a critical introduction (Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford), Glacken C J, 1967 Traces on the Rhodian shore; nature and culture in Western thought from ancient times to the end of the eighteenth century (University of California Press, Berkeley,), Unwin P T H, 1992 The place of geography (Longman Scientific & Technical, Harlow)
 See Cosgrove D E, 1984 Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape (Croom Helm, London), Relph E C, 1981 Rational landscapes and humanistic geography (Croom Helm, London)
 For some excellent examples of inventive uses of GIS in the humanities see Bodenhamer D J, Corrigan J, Harris T M, 2010 The spatial humanities : GIS and the future of humanities scholarship (Indiana University Press, Bloomington) Bodenhamer D J, Corrigan J, Harris T M, 2015 Deep maps and spatial narratives (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana), Knowles A K, 2014 Geographies of the Holocaust (ibid., Bloomington IN.), Knowles A K, Hillier A, 2008 Placing history : how maps, spatial data, and GIS are changing historical scholarship (ESRI Press, Redlands, Calif.)