Digital Mapping and the “Sense of Place”

Map overlay

The fetid musk of South Side slaughterhouses, the eclectic sprawl of Dublin, the muck of the Everglades: these sensual ambiences enwrap readers of The Jungle, Ulysses, and Their Eyes Were Watching God. Between those pages, space and atmosphere seems to “thicken, take on flesh,” as Mikhail Bakhtin wrote. These novels are exemplars, of course, but in general we don’t hesitate to label great fiction “immersive”; prose, at its best, can produce a powerful corporeal experience as well as a cognitive one. Why are we are reluctant to believe that historiography could do the same?

Historical research, we presume, benefits from coolness, neutrality, and critical distance. But the appeal to a sense of place, not just describing but making palpable distant or bygone scenery in all its spatial and social complexity, is not the responsibility of novelists alone. Reenactors, cultural preservationists, and open-air museum curators have demonstrated for more than a century that interactive history has not only entertainment value but also real heuristic potential, and it’s refreshing to work among academic historians eager to enrich historical narrative on—and beyond—the printed page.

For digital humanists working on histories of space and place, representing practice appears to be the current frontier of the technologically possible. Practice is French Marxist geographer and cultural critic’s Henri Lefebvre’s term, one of three composing the iconic “spatial triad” he unveils in The Production of Space. By practice, he refers not to the perceivable patterns and physical structures that demarcate our lived environments—Chicago’s elegant gridiron, for example, or the boggling angles and inclines of a suburban parking garage—but rather to the everyday activities that inform and shape our experience of space. Out of the mute fabric of open terrain, we sew complexly textured quilts of public and private meaning sensible only to us; memory and affect attach themselves to familiar sites and await their resuscitation each time we draw near.

Tangible patterns and structures are, of course, rather easily reproducible in virtual space. Many digital humanities projects succeed in generating multilayer, customizable, information-dense, yet highly legible maps that show, for example, patterns of German-Jewish emigration or mafia territory during Prohibition. These interactive diagrams are inarguably useful, and can provide necessary context and a sense of scale to otherwise dry historical narratives. But experience and memory remain notoriously hard to incorporate into digital interfaces. The challenge today is to push digital mapping technologies (also known as Geographic Information Systems, or GIS) beyond the ontic limitations of the map, before the map “pushes us back,” as Lefebvre predicted “towards a purely descriptive understanding” of history.

As an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Digital Humanities, I have the good fortune to work with Dr. Michael Jarvis, a historian at the University of Rochester specializing in the Atlantic maritime world, in particular the cultural and geopolitical role played by Bermuda during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Virtual St. George’s, his ambitious, year-old digital history project, makes use of multiple mediums and platforms—architectural rendering, digital cartography, drone photography, 3-D scanning—in an effort to electronically, interactively, immersively reconstruct space-as-experienced and life-as-lived across multiple eras in St. George’s, the colonial capital of the mid-Atlantic island. Jarvis summarizes the project’s objective best:

The project’s various historicized 3D townscapes will help visitors visualize how St. George’s evolved through adaptations to environmental change, world events, fluctuating global markets, local demographic shifts and architectural influences. Engagement can vary from particular exploration of individual building interiors using probate inventories (like a virtual house museum in the style of Colonial Williamsburg, Sturbridge Village, Greenfield Village) to an open-ended urban exploration of the town’s docks, warehouses, and streets filled with animated St. Georgian avatars. We plan ultimately to incorporate game-play missions (such as delivering letters to a royal governor, haggling with a ship captain or merchant, aiding an enslaved sailor to escape) to engage users of different ages in order to give direction and purpose to their spatial explorations, teach social science skills, and represent historical realities.


I see Virtual St. George’s as more than an opportunity to experiment with historical storytelling methods, and to spark conversation about the potentials—and practical limits—of the virtual sensorium. It will also model for the interoperability of multiple DH platforms that are now primarily used in isolation, and demonstrate the value of the virtual to preservationist efforts. As the Virtual St. George’s graduate assistant, I’ll be blogging here in the future about the project’s progress, as well as about the intersections and interstices of digital history, video games, virtual reality technology (e.g., Oculus Rift), drone photography, critical theory, and phenomenology.

Eitan Freedenberg is an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Digital Humanities and a PhD student in the Graduate Program in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester.

In “The Shape of the Civil War,” the Heritage of DH

“Every epoch, in fact, not only dreams the one to follow, but in dreaming, precipitates its awakening. It bears its end within itself and unfolds it cunningly.” – Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

The early twentieth century German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin was convinced that the popular architecture and cultural technologies of the nineteenth century—iron-and-glass arcades, panoramas, and exhibition halls—were seedlings of modern ways of thinking about and interacting with the world. The increasingly virtual, dreamlike, and commercial culture of the twentieth century was not at all novel, he thought, nor did it represent a sudden breakage with the traditions of the past. Rather, the “mass culture” of the 1920s and 30s was simply the convergence of a number of cultural trends that had developed decades, even a century earlier, in the form of Victorian escapism, alienation, and hyperconsumption—which were themselves a deferred outgrowth of Enlightenment thought, and so on. “They were destined for this end,” he writes, “from the beginning.”

It is all too easy, and self-congratulatory, to privilege the present—to think of it as new and unprecedented, as an always-peaking wave that the well-prepared can ride confidently. There is an undoubtedly euphoric feeling associated with participating in a moment of innovational upheaval, and of being the “ideal” customer or user of a new product—think of the social reward system built around purchasing new technology, or rapid consumption of today’s (but certainly not yesterday’s!) viral trend. But as Benjamin suggests, we live in a present assembled out of the materials of the past, rather than one that willed itself into existence ex nihilo.

This is the theme of a wealth of contemporary scholarship on technology. It is now a truism—even a traditionalist like Simon Schama promotes this idea—that the 1500 year-old Talmud, with its endlessly cross-referenced, hyper-embedded page layout, is a direct ancestor of and perhaps even model for the World Wide Web. In recent books Writing on the Wall and The Victorian Internet, journalist Tom Standage presents a convincing case that Martin Luther’s hammered theses and nineteenth century telecommunication not only resemble social media and the Internet, respectively; they also established the intellectual and social conditions necessary for their creation. These arguments are not reducible to pattern-finding, nor do they simply hinge on visual or structural coincidences, or on modern biases projected into the past. Rather, they show that the needs addressed by contemporary technology are deeply, even primordially embedded in human thought and desire, and that they find a proper expression in each successive phase of cultural development. In other words, the telegraph is not the cause of the Internet. Rather, the telegraph and the Internet arise from the same cause.

At a recent talk at the University of Rochester, Civil War historian (and University of Richmond president) Ed Ayers, a pioneer in digital humanities research and infrastructure-building, made a similar and compelling case about the genealogy of DH. Confronting the popular claim that DH is simply a new coat of (bureaucratic and distracting) paint on traditional humanistic methods, Ayers discussed at length the “History of the Civil War in the United States,” a most unusual visual timeline from late nineteenth century historian Arthur Hodgkin Scaife’s “Comparative and Synoptical System of History Applied to All Countries.”

Civil War Chart

Most simply described as a geographic chronology, Scaife’s chart both ingeniously and awkwardly attempts to illustrate the “shape” of the Civil War. He charts Union and Confederate troop movements over time and through space in parallel bands representing each state where hostilities took place, and to each side, bar graphs allow comparative readings of two dubiously interrelated statistics: the manpower of each army and the value of each side’s respective currency. It is unclear if Scaife actually thought these things were connected, or if he was simply trying to prove that correlation between any two reasonably derived statistics can be molded into a pattern by juxtaposition alone.

Scaife’s chart, Ayers argues, is a significant early expression of the quantificational impulse that drives digital humanities. It is easy to imagine this work—which is at once a graph, map, and tree, in Franco Moretti’s terms—making the rounds in the DH community, even earning grant funding for future and more complex or interactive implementations. DH scholars, Ayers suggested, would do well to embrace this material as evidence that the urge to represent complex sets of social, cultural, and historical information in a visual form precedes computers and does not at all replace scholarly historical research. Scaife read several dozen volumes of the best Civil War history available just thirty years after the war in order to create this one page. The effort undertaken is undeniable.

As a historian and a progenitor of data visualization, Scaife seems to have been done in by his belief in completism. It is impossible to convey the social complexity, the political causes, and the human cost of a tragedy like the Civil War in a single chart, or even in a single volume; few events in human history are as well-documented and as bottomlessly analyzable. His claim that his synoptic method could be “applied to all countries” is equally tough to swallow. According to the Slate magazine article in which Ayers first learned about Scaife, only a few other charts were ever published, including ones documenting the “‘Cuban Question,’ English history, and the life of William Gladstone.” In its failure to live up to its lofty ambitions, Ayers noted, the chart works equally as a warning and as an heirloom: even as we celebrate it for its untimely ingenuity, we must also recognize in it the folly of expecting new methods to “solve” the problems of humanities research.

Eitan Freedenberg is an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Digital Humanities and a PhD student in the Graduate Program in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester.