More Thought on the GeoHumanities

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[1] – 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”.[2]

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[3] because everything that exists must be somewhere “because what is not is nowhere – where for instance is a goat-stag or a sphinx?”[4] 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.[5] 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.[6]


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[7] 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)

[1] Dear M J, 2011 GeoHumanities : art, history and text at the edge of place (Routledge, London)


[3] Casey E S, 1997 The fate of place : a philosophical history (University of California Press, Berkeley)

[4] Ibid.

[5] 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)

[6] 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)

[7] 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.)

Geography in Action – Two recent events

As i have been involved in a big move from London to Boston/Brookline my attention has been to drawn to a couple of news stories in which geography, as I understand it, looms large.


A recent legal ruling in New York City cast doubt on the legality of police stop and frisk powers. The New York Civil Liberties Union tells us that these powers have been used more than 4 million times since 2002. Around 9 out of 10 of those stopped have been completely innocent of having done anything illegal. Close to 90% of these stopped were black or Latino.  This is a stark example of the politics of (im)mobility  that mirrors similar practices from London’s past with the so-called ‘sus’ laws of the 1970s. But this is not just about non-white people being stopped from moving around the city. Movement at the bodily scale was also implicated.  The New York Times reports that the Judge who has questioned the legality of the practice “noted that officers routinely stopped people partly on the basis of “furtive movements,” a category that officers have testified might encompass any of the following: being fidgety, changing directions, walking in a certain way, grabbing at a pocket or looking over one’s shoulder.” (New York Times 12 August 2013). This forms part of a long history of ‘furtive movements’ that have been policed, regulated and disciplined in the workplace, in leisure activities (such as dance), in transit spaces (such as airports) and simply moving through the city.


On arrival at Heathrow Airport, David Miranda, the partner of the Guardian journalist, Glenn Greenwald, was detained and questions without legal representation for nine hours. Glenn Greenwald had been reporting on the NSA leaks by Edward Snowden. Miranda was detained under anti-terrorism laws from 2000. Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act. There are many disturbing aspects to this incident. But one that caught my eye as a geographer was the way in which schedule 7 defines certain spaces as ones in which it is possible to detain a person for up to 9 hours without legal representation or any charges being made. It is only at airports and other border spaces that the police can act in this way. An innocent person detained in these spaces has fewer rights than an actual terrorist being detained in a police station. Anywhere else in the UK such actions would be entirely illegal. Miranda is only the most high profile person to be stopped under these laws. As with the stop and frisk laws there has been considerable concern that schedule 7 unfairly targets minority groups. Geography Matters.

Dylan’s Geographies


In case you missed it, Bob Dylan has a new album out. It is the latest in a series of albums dating back to 1997 that has seen Dylan exploring the connections between the folk and blues traditions (as much the Scottish borders as the Deep South) on the one hand and the modern world on the other. In a recent Rolling Stone interview the rather hapless interviewer asked Dylan

Don’t you think you’re a particularly American voice – for how your songs reference our history, or have commented on it?

To which Dylan replied


They’re historical. But they’re also biographical and geographical. They represent a particular state of mind. A particular territory.

(Rolling Stone, 27 September 2012, p46)


It was somewhere between Infidels and Empire Burlesque that I got to know Dylan. I was introduced to him by my girlfriend at the time. We met in college, I was studying geography and she was a mathematician.  I had never knowingly listened to Dylan. She had many albums – mostly the old folky ones. She lived in a big house in Park Town in North Oxford, over the road from Ian McEwen. I remember my first visit to that house. It had three floors with high ceilings. It was in a state of permanent asymmetry unlike my parent’s house which was, for the most part, symmetrical, dusted, repainted every two years, matching. This house had valuable paintings (not prints) by some Penrose or other, propped against the wall – not even hung up. There were piles of books everywhere. Her father was an astrophysicist (who had a hand in the education of Stephen Hawking) and her mother an anthropologist. Everything was casually valuable. Furniture looked antique. That is where I learned what an artichoke looked like and how to peel it away until you reached the hairy, dangerous choke. That is where I saw what seemed like whole shrubs of rosemary attached to hunks of lamb out of the oven and on to the thick wood table in the kitchen. That is where I learned that salad could be a separate course. I wanted to live like that. But most of all, after a few months of this, I wanted to be Dylan on the front of Freewheelin’ with my Suze Rotolo on my arm. I inherited her dad’s old sheepskin jacket and it kind of looked the same colour as Dylan’s.



Dylan became part of a ‘particular territory’ for me – a territory that included Kerouac and Sam Shepherd. It included Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I started to dream of American expanses of tumble weed and wooden shacks and weathered travellers. It seemed a long way from my parent’s home on the edge of the Cotswolds or the grey November London. I started to plan my escape enthused by the sounds and words of Girl From the North Country “where the wind hits heavy on the borderline”, “snowflakes storm” and “rivers freeze”.



The first time I saw Dylan was at Dane County Coliseum in Madison, Wisconsin, shortly after my arrival. I was there to undertake my Masters degree and PhD in cultural geography. It must have been 1989. The large cavern of a building was half empty. These were Dylan’s barren years. I went with the folksinging roommate I has managed to find on arrival in Madison, Wisconsin. He had sat in the house we shared (a kind of shotgun shack of a house) and played You’re Gonne Make Me Lonesome When You Go to my girlfriend and I just as she was about to leave. We had just travelled around the US on Greyhound buses, starting in New York and ending in Madison (avoiding the middle of the country as best we could). Along the way I had been to Washington DC, Brunswick, Georgia, New Orleans, Phoenix, San Antonio, El Paso, the Grand Canyon, San Francisco, Yellowstone. We had also sat in buses as the road headed endlessly forward just as it does in the movies. Riding from Jackson Hole to Madison via Bismark, Butte, Billings, Minneapolis/St Paul was a new experience of geography – an experience of space that did not seem to stop. I was going to get to Madison (where Dylan has briefly lived on his way from Hibbing, Minnesota to New York City), wait for by girlfriend to head back to Oxford and buy a motorbike. Yes – that was the plan.

Anyway – Bennett and I went to see Dylan and it was bad. I recognized a few songs. It was in the days that Dylan liked to wear a leather waistcoat and long dangly earrings.



I could hear geography in Dylan’s words and music. It was a geography far removed from the home counties. I could hear the iron range of northern Minnesota where Dylan grew up. I could hear the Midwest and New York City’s Greenwich Village. In later albums the country opened up panoramically. By the time of Desire Dylan was in the southwest with its cantinas, mesas and buttes, its lonely pine hanging on to the cliffs of Mount Zion National Park against all odds. I could hear the borderlands with Mexico. Before that Dylan had opened up the continental landscape in Blood on the Tracks – a landscape designed to match the particular biography of Dylan’s marriage breakdown. He was on the road, heading for another joint. Tangled up in Blue is, if nothing else, an extraordinary travelogue of resonating place names – Montague Street where music played in cafes at night and there was revolution in the air. Delacriox, where Dylan’s narrator got a job on a fishing boat, turns out to be the ends of the earth, where the Louisiana swamp (so well captured in Oh Mercy) met the Gulf of Mexico. Dylan has always had a talent with place names. But it was his voice that most captured a territory – it had, as he put it in the pretty decent 2009 album, Together Through Life– “the blood of the land” in his voice.



Rue Morgue Avenue – in Juarez. That was my day in Mexico  – crossing over from El Paso for the day, experiencing the sudden drop in the price of Coke and everything else. “They’ve got some hungry women there” Dylan sang, “and they really make a mess out of you”.



During our road trip, in San Antonio I think, I had bought Knocked out Loaded. I had found the cassette tape in Tower Records and put it in my Walkman (a post graduation present to myself). It has a strange picture of a seemingly western scene of a buxom woman, scantily dressed in a yellow dress, about to break a large terracotta urn over the head of a man in a hat with a bullet belt around him, trying to strangle the living daylights of a handsome looking man I presumed to be her beau. It looked like it might have happened somewhere near the Alamo, somewhere near where I bought it. It was one of Dylan’s truly dreadful albums, full of forgettable songs, many of which he did not write. One stands out. Brownsville Girl is long, rambling shaggy dog story co written with Sam Shepherd and, for the most part spoken by Dylan. The narrative switched between standing in line to see a movie starring Gregory Peck – a western – and a long road trip.

The song passed through San Antonio and the Alamo – just down the road from the flea infested hostel on the outside of town that has mattresses on the floor that, the owner informed, us, he could rent by the hour. “Hot beds” he said. Much better to put the headphones on:


I can still see the day that you came to me on the painted desert
In your busted down Ford and your platform heels
I could never figure out why you chose that particular place to meet
Ah, but you were right. It was perfect as I got in behind the wheel.


Well, we drove that car all night into San Anton’
And we slept near the Alamo, your skin was so tender and soft.
Way down in Mexico you went out to find a doctor and you never came back.
I would have gone on after you but I didn’t feel like letting my head get blown off.


And later


How far are y’all going?” Ruby asked us with a sigh.
”We’re going all the way ’til the wheels fall off and burn,
’Til the sun peels the paint and the seat covers fade and the water moccasin dies.”
Ruby just smiled and said, “Ah, you know some babies never learn.”


This being the second Dylan album I had bought on, or close to, its release, I listened to it non-stop for the rest of the trip waiting for Brownsville Girl. At one point I was sitting in Union Square in San Francisco just as Macy’s was beginning to close. A young punk was hanging out trying to be cool and hard at the same time. I was in Dylan’s world. A homeless man came up to rummage through the trash. He smelled bad. The punk was unable to cope and ran off leaving me and Dylan in San Francisco –imagine that.



The first album of Dylan’s to be released in my period as a Dylan fan was Empire Burlesque. I lived in Crouch End. I remember getting up and throwing on jeans over my pyjamas – racing around to the kind of independent record store that is probably not there anymore. I brought the record back to the ground floor room I shared with a friend and (probably to his disgust) put on the 1980s Dylan trying for the only time in his life to be modern and up to date complete with famous producer and electronic instruments. Dylan was on the front dressed as though he was auditioning for Duran Duran. Dylan, it turns out, had been in the neighbourhood, jamming with Dave Stewart from the Eurythmics, who owned a studio in a converted church nearby. There has been sightings of Dylan in the local Tandoori. I had dreams of bumping into Dylan and inviting him around for a cup of tea. It was later that I heard the often told story of Dylan in Crouch End. Apparently Dave Stewert had invited Dylan to drop in at his recording studio on Crouch Hill at any time. Dylan took him for his word and asked a taxi to take him there. He was dropped off at the nearby Crouch End Hill by mistake. He knocked on a door and asked for Dave. The woman who answered the door told him that Dave was out but would be back soon.  She sat him down and made him a cup of tea. Twenty minutes later Dave returned – Dave the plumber, not Dave the musician – to find Bob Dylan in his living room drinking tea.


Anyway – Empire Burlesque was not a high point of Dylan’s career. But it did have one beautiful little, un-produced, non-electronic song called Dark Eyes at the end. This made it worth it.



The second time I saw Dylan was at Merriweather Post Pavilion just outside Washington DC. It was July 1989. I was in love again and wanted to share my love of Dylan with my new partner (later to be my wife, mother of my children etc…). I desperately wanted her to like him. She found a coupon on a Betty Crocker dessert that got us two-for-one tickets. These still were not good times for Dylan. We took a blanket and sat on the grass in the humid summer. Carol was not impressed, she couldn’t hear the words in the mix and, anyway, she didn’t like his voice. Still doesn’t. I remember him playing Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine). He hasn’t played that for a while.


To be continued