bodenhamer et al._spatial humanities_907_1360
David Bodenhamer, John Corrigan, and Trevor Harris Eds, The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2010. 222 pages. $20.99, paperback, ISBN: 9780253222176.

he transformation of GIS into GIScience was a de-reifying move in a succession of moves that have gradually brought geospatial tools and technologies into realms of scholarly reputability. It is now no longer a knee-jerk reaction to assume that the use of GIS as part of scientific, cultural, political, or economic inquiry must be part of a positivistic conspiracy to colonise (and ultimately degrade or destroy) geographic inquiry once and for all. I will argue, through a review of two recent books from the University of Indiana Press (The Spatial Humanities and Toward Spatial Humanities), that, nonetheless, reaction (though now less knee-jerk) is still real, and that because of this reaction, reification of geospatial technologies often occurs through reduction of technologies and practices to sets of tools.  I will argue, further, that it is only through focus on geospatial practices (Wittgenstein, 2009; Hanna and Harrison, 2004) that continued de-reification of GIS, and subsequent productive uptake in sub-disciplines within geography or related disciplines, can occur.

Tools are all around us, both literally and metaphorically.  We use maps as tools to navigate through space and named places, now enabled by the embedding of GPS technologies within the maps, themselves embedded in mobile devices.  Names (of places) are tools for making sense of allocentric (disembodied) space, with tags, coordinates, descriptions, and proper names competing to fill the spaces of maps.  These names have connotations and meanings that make them more than mere tags or labels.  Indigenous peoples senses of names, for example in Western Apache (Basso, 1996) or Tlingit (Thornton, 2008) life-worlds, are loaded with meaning and moral lessons attached to specific aspects of traditional landscape.  Gazetteers of place names from around the world abound, proliferate, and come to be known through their increasing inclusion in online mapping platforms.  New names are being invented constantly, geo-tagged on twitter, re-tweeted, and re-transformed into new ways of being in place and performing landscapes (Visit Britain, 2015).

In one of the chapters in Toward Spatial Humanities, Meeks and Mostern make use of gazetteers of Chinese place names to explore historical questions of   territoriality and space in Song Dynasty China.  The focus of the entire volume is historical in nature, with applications for GIS.  Therefore, Meeks and Mostern cannot be faulted for failing to break any moulds methodologically or theoretically.  As with most of the studies in both Toward Spatial Humanities and the earlier The Spatial Humanities, theoretical frameworks and methodologies present a conservative cast of mind that seems to be only just coming to grips with inter-disciplinary potentials and/or social/human implications of GIS.  The emphasis is still very tool-focused.  At most, gestures are made towards GIS as a tool-making enterprise, very much embedded in ideal structures of other disciplines with attendant ways of thinking and methodologies.

At the same time, the turn towards geo-humanities in geography contains a de-reifying impulse that aims to embed geospatial thinking into questions of concern for humanists, historians, cultural and political geographers and others (Crang, 2015; Rossetto, 2013; Delyser and Sui, 2012). Outside of geography, concerns with the social implications of potentially geospatially-enabled search, sorting, and algorithm-oriented platforms are growing, and are turning concern in humanistic inquiry back towards critique of (geospatial) technology as distinctly non-neutral, value-laden, and structured by corporate and market interests (Pasquale, 2015), resonating with early critiques of GIS that took a “social implications” approach (Pickles, 1995).

Both Toward Spatial Humanities and The Spatial Humanities cite Pickles (1995), and other classics in the field of so-called “critical GIS”.  Of the two books, the latter (older book) pushes the envelope further into productive new areas of innovative thought concerned with neogeographies of the geoweb.  Neither, however, is very deeply critical of these developments as productive of inequalities and social imbalances (Leszczynski, 2014; Haklay, 2013).  What are we to make of the future of humanities scholarship invested in GIS that fails to take seriously critique of this kind?  Lessons from hard-won truces and peace-building after the GIS wars of the 1990s are at risk of being forgotten.

This is especially true of the penultimate chapter of Toward Spatial Humanities, Hallam and Roberts’ “Mapping the City in Film”. Hallam and Roberts’ chapter “locates” film in the city of Liverpool using a set of point-based maps showing promotional, newsreel, documentary and amateur film sites.  The resulting “cinematic cartography” is exceedingly thin, and represents a huge step backwards from what Conley (2007) or Caquard (2009) have achieved in this fascinating area of scholarly inquiry.  Far from the 39 Steps’ montage-based narrative approach to geospatially-enabled cinematic experience, we are jolted into the realization that in the hands of film and digital cultures experts, GIS has a vulgar effect of making everything into maps. It is no longer about the deeper geospatial cinematic rhythms introduced through montage and other mapping devices, widely defined, that make movies interesting.  Now it is a set of crude maps that is alleged to do so.  But most GIS scholars will see through this fairly quickly (one would hope).

It might be overly optimistic to think so, based on the sets of texts produced in these two volumes. There is hope, however.  Corrigan, in the fifth chapter of The Spatial Humanities, writes about how an original, unambiguous, impetus drove the early development of GIS as a quantitative analytical platform.  To introduce ambiguity into GIS research, Corrigan points out, is to risk appearing to misunderstand the role of GIS in research.  But this assumes that GIS is a fixed “thing”, unable to adapt to shifting technological and research trajectories.  Corrigan notes  that if “humanities GIS has a future it will incorporate at some point early on discussion of what we mean by data and how we name the inventories collected as such” (page 77). Traditionally, GIS has been defined by counting and empirically validated accuracy defined by numbers.

Qualitative GIS, on the other hand, is meant to be rigorous in ways that qualitative methods, as applied to GIS, have evolved into established routines.  The diachronic should enter the picture here as time and other rich variables such as subjectivity, triangulation, and reflexivity start to be foregrounded.  Images in quantitative GIS were, strictly defined, rosters with quanta of information that collectively and additively (across single and multiple images, respectively) resulted in calculative rationality being at the heart of analysis.  Emerging qualitative GIS paradigms use images in fuzzier ways, or combine visual methods (Rose, 2012; Pink, 2007) with geospatial analysis to produce feminist, health, and psychogeographical analyses more compatible with humanities scholarly sensibilities and radicalisms (O’Rourke, 2013; Cope and Elwood, 2009; Schuurman, 2004; Kwan, 2002).

GIS tools for critical thinking would highlight conceptual powers of geospatial metaphors for mapping very slippery humanities data using frameworks provided by geospatial tools.  These tools-as-frameworks would come to define deeper critiques of rigid-space-as-container ways of seeing.  They would generate questions on-the-fly using projective metaphors, metonymies, and rhythms, re-enacting space through time.  The latter, conceptualised as a fluid construct, would re-animate GIS as an ambiguous product of the human mind, with tangibilities, exceptions, differences, and openness to infinite ways of being.  This is to think both radically and on one’s feet, and it would be (if it was true) a way of avoiding reliance upon striating geospatial machines that fracture lives.

Critical GIS, thus conceived, doesn’t need anything more than human minds.  It is also radical in a poetic way.  By this it means something other than what is expected of it, what it is supposed to mean.  The learning of GIS will never be easy, and it will always be radical, even (and especially) for quantifiers and positivists.  But this is all the better for Foucauldian and other radical geographers thinking about or with GIS.  What Foucault (1977) did in his thinking was to create sets of tools for thinking critically, for questioning, and in this it was completely in line with some of the developing technologies of its time (including nascent GIS).  The late 60s and early 70s were fruitful times for both positivists (Harvey, 1969) and poststructuralists.  Later some of their respective modes of thought came together nicely, for example, in neo-realist rhizomatic (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987) or neo-Marxian anti-system (Lefebvre, 1991) thinking.

Participation is now so taken for granted in GIS that its inclusion in both theory and practice is not only redundant but reactionary.  Participation now means privacy invasion, self-censorship, unconscious geo-location, algorithmic walking or driving, and other reflexive activities.  As Wood (2010) has noted participation is the absent centre of GIS: it was never really there, having been co-opted from the start by hierarchies of activism and expertise.  That Trevor Harris is a co-editor of The Spatial Humanities is therefore telling.  One strength of the newer volume (Toward Spatial Humanities) is that it doesn’t mention participation.  This could be seen as progress.  If critical GIS is one thing, perhaps that one thing needs to be more focused on the individual perception and how it is interpellated into structures in the production of new spaces of interaction with other individuals.

Such agent-based ways of seeing are, similarly, missing from both volumes.   Both thus miss massive new trends in GIScience, those concerned with apps, models, and multiple kinds of magical thinking introduced by twitter, video gaming, cinema, virtual reality, ontologies, and an array of philosophical ways of thinking.  That philosophy needs to come into GIS at some point has always been an uneasy point of contention amongst the hopeful of GIS for new worlds of inclusiveness.  Here we have positivism with qualitative research in a dance of action and reaction pushing the paradigm ever forward.  Philosophies of science and paradigm can hold hands with diffuse counter-power and anti-hegemony as GIS unbound pushes ever forward.  Other wilder hopes exist, such as those exemplified by these two volumes, one (The Spatial Humanities) slightly aged but not the worse for wear, the other (Toward Spatial Humanities) newer but really mostly missing the point.  The authors of both volumes need a serious re-think of what it means to do (to practice) GIS as a scholarly (conceptual) exercise.  Critical GIS has a long way to go, and reaching its goal is proving to be asymptotic, if not infinitely elusive. 


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