The Space Race: History’s not-so-final frontier

Doing the readings for this week prompted some reflection on multiple issues.  As I was reading the Sci-7 paper and summary, I began thinking about the relationship between race, class, and space.  Historians of slavery have long charted and analyzed the complex relationship between the architecture of homes (mostly southern, for obvious reasons, but with a few exceptions) and the racial thought of (mostly) the 18th and 19th century.  Before everyone starts shouting, I am aware that almost every article, most notably the SCI 7 paper, gave proper credit to the role of architecture historians as being part of the advance guard for the “spatial turn,” but simply acknowledging their contributions elides both the depth and significance of those contributions. To cite just two brief examples from prominent historians, Rhys Isaac’s Landon Carter’s Uneasy Kingdom; Revolution and Rebellion on a Virginia Plantation, and William H. Freehling’s The Road to Disunion, Volume II; Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861 both analyze the relationship between race and space to add new dimensions to their respective arguments (specifically, see Issac, Landon Carter, 4-8 and Freehling Road to Disunion, v.2 356-360). Perhaps a more complete accounting of this historiography would ease its acceptance into the mainstream of the discipline.

Directly tied to this issue of the acceptance of spatial history into the discipline is the question of what, exactly, are we supposed to take away from this new element of scholarship, and what is its broader role in the construction of a scholarly argument.  This issue is something that David wrestled with in his post for this week.  David can correct me if I’m wrong, but one the things that he is suggesting (and that I wholeheartedly agree with) is that we have to be extra careful to make sure that spatial history actually addresses important points, or in David’s words “can we derive arguments from visualizations.”  However, I understood the readings (most notably the Richard White and Jo Guldi readings) as saying that what might be equally important or useful is that if spatial history helps lead to new questions, or at least come at data/source material from a different perspective. If we take the ability to pose new types of questions, or offer a different perspective on old questions as our starting point, then it can be argued that the spatial turn does have the ability to provide us with a question that can lead to a thesis, and even in some cases to a thesis itself.  Furthermore, I think that part of the critical contributions that falls under the “offers a new perspective on old arguments” umbrella is the ability to present old information in a different, and perhaps for those outside the discipline a more effective and concise manner then the traditional monograph.  To illustrate this point, Dan and I actually used the Charles Minard map  in the undergrad version of Clio Wired last week.  The observations and deductions the undergrads culled from the map were fairly astute, but more to the point, they were actively engaged in a discussion, and (I would venture a guess though I don’t know this for certain) probably got the same amount of information out of this exercise then they would have gotten out of a 500 page monograph that chronicled Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.

To the point of whether or not creation of some form of visual representation counts as scholarship, I absolutely think it should, though I am not entirely certain about the role it should play in making an argument. Thinking back to issues we discussed a few weeks ago that dealt with the acceptance of digital history as scholarship, I can’t help but wonder if it will only be accepted by the discipline at large within the context of a “traditional” argument or monograph.  On another level, we can’t necessarily expect everyone to discern all the arguments that spatial history or visualizations can convey unless we either teach them how, or provide some type of accompanying text.  Additionally, I’m not sure that I will ever be able to come to some sort of firm conclusion about a “correct” formula for the relationship between a traditional written argument, and one made with the “spatial turn.”  So perhaps after all of that, I think that at least part of me is in agreement with Davids reservations about “leaning towards the privileging of words…as the vehicle for an argument, albeit with the various forms of visualization to present supporting evidence” when considering  the role of spatial history representation within the framework historical thesis.

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One response to “The Space Race: History’s not-so-final frontier

  1. Pingback: Slow Chocolate Autopsy, Historically Speaking | History Wired

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