Space is a difficult concept to render in words, yet entirely necessary to many historical projects. As Richard White so deftly states in his piece “Spatial History,” “spatial relations shift and change. Space itself is historical.” As a historical concept, space can be both the subject and the category of analysis.
For example in the ORBIS Project, the space through which Romans moved themselves and goods is the subject of study. The relations of space with time and cost demonstrates the employment of space as a critical lens through which to understand the economic structure of the Roman Empire. HyperCities similarly examines constructions and layers of space in cities while using that examination to get at deeper ideas.
These are two projects in which space becomes the subject and means of analysis. Richard White defines the many conceptions that exist in the single word “space.” In addition to LeFabvre’s concepts of spatial practice, representations of space, and representational space, White adds relational space and absolute space. These cover space as a physical entity to a intellectual conception to a cultural manifestation to systems of movement and exchange with all their consequences and factors.
[As a side note, these last two concepts struck me immediately. I have noticed that space changes drastically depending on ease of movement, time, and mode of transportation. What may only be a fifteen minute car ride in the city may also be 45 minutes in rush hour or 1.25 hours on public transportation. Additionally, people in different parts of the country define space, particularly for directions, differently. I am constantly reminded by family in the Midwest of my New England habit to give directions and measure travel in minutes rather than the miles they tend to use. While this may related to a non-grid road system, worse traffic, tradition, or different geography, space takes on new meanings depending on a multitude of factors beyond absolute distance and geography.]
Digital history opens spatial history as a field of analysis. The overwhelming data needed to be collected, processed, analyzed, and mapped requires more than a table to imbue it with recognizable meaning for readers. As White noted, the particular characteristics of digital humanities such as collaboration lend themselves to working with the minute and often boring data.
Richard White’s previous work with environmental history gives this piece on spatial history new meaning. He has been occupied with nature as an absolute space as well as how it is altered, imbued with meaning, and conceptualized. Space in American culture and history is often primarily associated with tracts of land – how it is used, how it is acquired, how it is conserved or cultivated. (Rather than urban design, house configurations for example.) His book The Organic Machine examines evolving usage and perceptions of the Columbia River. Visualizations of the ebb and flow of the river, the patterns of wildlife such as salmon, or the growing manipulation of the power of the river would have enhanced the book. And the information used to construct them may have opened new questions and patterns of analysis.
I was struck reading “Spatial History” and then looking at the ORBIS project in particular of how digital history can lend it to certain histories that are intimately involved with space on multiple levels. Beyond environmental history, borderlands or contact zones that are often utilized as concepts in indigenous and imperial histories are spaces that are geographical, cultural, and politically charged. Two sites of human settlements may be quite close but the cultural distance may be vast and fraught with complicated politics related to questions of power, economics, and other divisive issues. Another such history that may benefit is world history. What compromises world history exactly is still not absolutely defined, but it includes the world as a whole and deals with issues that cross the traditional spaces of the nation and region. African American studies could also benefit from digital attention to space to more truly and overtly demonstrate the slave trade. The slave ship, as Marcus Rediker argues, is a physical space that moves people between geographic spaces but it also is a transformative space where people are transported mentally, culturally, morally, and economically. Many other histories could benefit from an increased attention to spatial relations and digital representations and tools to analyze those spaces may provide the path to discussing and incorporating the spatial history which often seems neglected due to an inability to find the right language or lens.