Building a Multivocal Spatial History: Scalar and the Bodies and Structures Project (Part 2)
This essay is part two of a three-part series. Read part one here.
In 2019, David R. Ambaras and Kate McDonald launched Bodies and Structures 1.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History. Bodies and Structures is a collaborative platform for researching and teaching spatial histories of nineteenth- and twentieth-century East Asia. In a separate post, Ambaras and McDonald discuss how they created the Bodies and Structures project. Here, Curtis Fletcher and Erik Loyer from the Scalar development team respond with their own thoughts on the collaboration with Bodies and Structures and the future of Scalar as a platform for humanities scholarship.
Scalar Development Team: Erik Loyer and Curtis Fletcher
Scalar was born out of the experimental Vectors Lab in an attempt to codify what the team had learned about the value of digital form in the context of humanities research. Our vision was to privilege flexibility and malleability wherever possible, the better to enable the kinds of nuanced, multivalent, and media-rich analysis that we saw scholars trying to tackle time and time again. In this way, Scalar is part of a larger, ongoing experiment to rethink the nature of humanities scholarship.
Following in the Vectors Lab model, the Scalar team regularly works with scholars, and practitioners in the digital humanities more broadly, to see online works to publication and to co-investigate how knowledge creation and meaning making in the humanities might function differently in a digital environment. Our hope, in releasing Scalar, was that scholars would use the platform, not just to deliver their content in more visually arresting ways, but to leverage its structural affordances to model new kinds of inquiry and, as a result, prototype new forms of scholarship. These new models then inform our sense of Scalar’s capacities, and even, at times, drive the platform’s subsequent development.
David Ambaras and Kate McDonald have applied Scalar in just this manner. Bodies and Structures is a multifaceted research environment built around a series of “modules” and “conceptual maps.” Modules contain translations and analysis of primary materials by individual scholars (Figure 1). Conceptual maps, utilizing Scalar’s visualizations and mapping functionality, connect up and contextualize modules thematically, historically and geographically. In this way, visualizations in Bodies and Structures are interfaces for accessing the research just as much as they are products of the research. Bodies and Structures utilizes Scalar not just as a page layout system for publishing online scholarship, but also as a tool for exploring the fundamental questions that emerge from the work. They are, as McPherson has written of the original vision behind Scalar’s visualizations, “not merely illustrative… [but] are also powerful interpretations that present a project’s structure, evidence, and arguments in new ways”.
Part of the vision behind the complex architecture of Bodies and Structures is to make visible the multiple, simultaneous, and often contested voices that ultimately inform space and place. Ambaras and McDonald’s work comes at an apt moment as key commentators inside (and outside) the digital humanities voice their concern over the prevalence of projects and practices in digital humanities that elide context, ambiguity, and interpretation. Our hope, therefore, in working with Ambaras and McDonald, is to broaden the kind of scholarly practice exemplified in Bodies and Structures by implementing a more programmatic way, within Scalar’s interface, for authors to highlight, and for readers to capture, intersectionality and multivocality.
 Tara McPherson, Feminist in a Software Lab: Design + Difference (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018).
 Tara McPherson, “Designing for Difference,” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 25, no. 1 (2014): 184.
 Johanna Drucker, “Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display,” DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly 5, no. 1 (2011); Miriam Posner, “What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities,” in Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, ed. Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 32-41; William G. Thomas III, “The Promise of the Digital Humanities and the Contested Nature of Digital Scholarship,” in A New Companion to Digital Humanities, 2nd ed., ed. Susan Schriebman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2016), 524-37.