Space-Time Continuum: Richard White’s “The Spatial Turn”

richard white, “the spatial turn” @ northwestern university center for historical studies, 2 october 2013.

UnknownRichard White.

Richard White‘s recent talk at Northwestern University’s Center for Historical Studies asked the audience to move with him across a terrain of digital projects that all involved thinking spatially about the past. The basic outline of the talk can be found here: Richard White, “What Is Spatial History?,” White was careful to describe his turn less as a revolution than as a new contribution to historical thinking. This was perhaps false modesty. There was an undercurrent in the talk of the importance of thinking spatially and using digital technologies to do so.

On the theoretical level, White asked us to think more carefully about the elasticity of space as a concept. Drawing on Henri Lefebvre, White argued that space is most of all defined by movement. It is not something static or immobile, a vessel waiting to be filled or a structure beyond human shaping; rather, White contended, space is created out of the interaction of humans with other elements of the natural world and built environment. To prove his point, he showed us Aaron Koblin’s striking visualization of United States air flight patterns over the course of 24 hours, which almost by magic seemed to create the boundaries of the US nation out of, quite literally, thin air (

flight_patternsThe motion makes the map: Aaron Koblin’s visualization of flight patterns in the US.

From this theoretical sensitivity to space as made and produced instead of passively present, White took his audience through a number of project that suggested how the spatial imagination allowed historians to pose new questions, develop new interpretations, and create new modes of presentation. At times, the talk devolved into a bit of a show-and-tell exercise. This is the danger of much digital humanities presentation, which can easily skim the surface of historical inquiry by getting too focused on the exciting dazzle of graphic design. I wished White would have spent more time on one case and taken us more deeply into the linkage between its “weird” evidence, his thinking about space as movement, his digital visualization design, and how it all related to the realization of historical interpretation and historiographical intervention.

White might have focused on his own research on the history of railroads in America. He showed us what was, to most historians, an intriguing but mostly inscrutable freight table from the Southern Pacific Railroad. It was a bit of archival evidence that he suspected possessed important information about the relationship between railroads and their customers, but whose meaning could not easily be unlocked simply by looking at it directly. The numerical data, he convincingly demonstrated, required visualization in order to discern more compellingly. When White and his team at Stanford’s Spatial History Project mapped the data to a dynamic digital map that added cost and time to distance as factors contained in the table, the resulting spatial visualization began to reveal compelling results. As a “distortion visualization” of grain rates charged by the Southern Pacific, it explained how the railroad company manipulated prices in relation to space in order to outmaneuver steamboat competition on the Sacramento River. This allowed the railroad company to reach far into the southern San Joaquin Valley hinterlands as the only contender to bring wheat to market and then recoup costs on first class consumer goods going out from San Francisco. White’s key last step—a step that a human not a computer can make—was to notice how this “spatial manipulation” by the Southern Pacific left the farmers at the mercy of the railroad company, which in turn (the crucial turn of the spatial turn?) illuminated why they grew so angry to the railroads for seeming to control their fates.

freight_tableFreight table, Southern Pacific Railroad, 1876.

In this example, White demonstarted how the spatial turn allowed him to link material factors to popular consciousness through unlocking the information hidden within an archival object whose significance at first seemed difficult to discern. Thinking spatially—which is to say about space as created by human agency in this case—opened up a key historical relationship between rural farmers and the Southern Pacific Railroad running into and out of San Francisco as the emerging wholesaling center of the West Coast in the 1870s. Digital technology empowered a “distortion visualization,” producing an interactive map that, when accompanied by good old-fashioned prose, dramatized the social relations and struggles buried in the freight tables. This was compelling stuff, a good example of how the spatial turn deepened one scholar’s intuitions about the significance of a piece of evidence from the archive and allowed him to more precisely describe and analyze the interplay of human decision making and material factors hidden within that document. From the neat and ordered columns of the Southern Pacific Railroad freight table erupted the messy class and regional conflicts of agrarian-industrial relations in the late nineteenth century.

In fact, I hungered for White to go deeper into this one example rather than jump to other projects. My appetite was whetted further when in response to a question about how to convincingly connect spatial analysis to understandings of popular consciousness, White remarked that the freight table mapping exercise fundamentally altered his perception of “everyday working Americans” when they contend that economic life is getting tougher for them. White explained that their perspective is, he now believed more firmly than ever, usually right. Their common sense should not be overruled by abstract, aggregate data that claims to shows material improvement. This kind of overarching data is always tied to ideological struggles about capitalism in the United States and it can easily hide other economic relationships of power, relationships that remain buried in items such as freight tables. When brought into the light of the digital screen, this economic data confirms perceptions in popular consciousness by various groups. It allows us to be far more finely-grained not only in our comprehension of the economic factors involved in the making of history, but also in our understanding of their social effects.

White’s talk left me wondering about a number of other questions:

First, does the reliance of spatial visualization on certain kinds of “data” have limitations? Or better said, does it foreclose other kinds of evidence and interpretations? What I mean is that digital visualizations of space frame a certain kind of relationship between numbers and their representation spatially and visually. This is fine, but we must be aware of how it emphasizes certain modes of logic and reasoning about the links between material structure and cultural experience. It might crowd out, for instance, the role of religious, of culture, or, most importantly, the agency of historical actors who do not typically appear in the numbers, such as women. This is not to reject the spatial turn, but rather to emphasize, as I suspect White would agree, the criticality with which we must approach the use of the digital to represent historical evidence and argument. Moreover, does this kind of spatial imagining and digital visualization risk asserting certain assumptions about scale: that more equals more true. Does it risk missing the weird moments when one act, isolated, sparks historical change? Does it have the danger of missing the volatile shifting of weight and force, thought and action, little and big, push and pull, that we must honor as the very levers of historical change and continuity? I do not think it has to, but it will if we do not carefully scrutinize the logics guiding the spatial turn.

Second, in striving to emphasize the dynamic, invented quality of space, was he perhaps underplaying the times when space is a bit more rigid, implacable, resistant to human manipulation? It is exhilarating to see space become something unfixed, but are there times when it also persists stubbornly in the efforts of humans to make it their own, “create” it for their own purposes?

One might go a step further here. In pushing us to think of space as created by human imagination and action, White kept taking space to the brink of other driving forces, most obviously time. In the examples of the spatial turn that White provided, space as movement almost, to my mind, gave way to time. Perhaps then the spatial turn is really better characterized as a new kind of temporal turn? At what point does thinking spatially merely become a journey back to thinking temporally? Does this matter? Perhaps not. But it does raise the question one has about any “turn”: in this case, to what space is it finally taking us as its destination?

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