Building a Multivocal Spatial History: Scalar and the Bodies and Structures Project (Part 3)

Building a Multivocal Spatial History: Scalar and the Bodies and Structures Project (Part 3)

This essay is the last of a three-part series. Follow the links to read part one and part two.


In the first two parts of this series, we discussed how “multivocality” shapes the intellectual agenda of the Bodies and Structures project and how this intellectual agenda shapes and is shaped by the Scalar platform. In the final installment, we suggest specific ways to use Bodies and Structures to analyze spatial history from a multivocal perspective.

we call above all for reclaiming ownership over how we map and why

Step One: Liberate Mapping from Modern Cartography.

“ ‘Map’ needs to be liberated from its alliance with modern cartography so that it can resume its original sense of charting one’s place or way in a given region,” philosopher Edward Casey once wrote. Easier said than done. Cartographic maps—what most of us imagine when we think of maps—provide a convenient form of orientation. As canvases that visualize location and define territorial boundaries, they offer an infrastructure for communicating spatial data whose metaphors and codes are widely understood. Yet they also generate significant blind spots. They represent space and place with a clarity that contrasts sharply with the competing concepts, contested boundaries, and multiple identities that we encounter in lived and imagined space.

Figure 1. The entry points to Bodies and Structures. Credit: David R. Ambaras and Kate McDonald.

Bodies and Structures liberates spatial history from modern cartography. The site does not abjure cartographic maps. But we provide several other ways to locate the site’s contents. You, as the user, determine how to orient yourself within the space of the site, and how to construct the space of “your” historical world. To allow for this, the site offers four entry points: the List of Modules, the Tag Map, the Complete Grid Visualization, and the Geotagged Map (figure 1). Each presents a different arrangement of the site’s pages, and a different possible use of the site.

Step Two: Determine How You Want to Map the Site

For basic classroom purposes, you may want to conceptualize the site as an edited volume with seven chapters. Enter the site through the List of Modules. Assign one such as David Fedman’s “Place Annihilation,” which tells the story of the U.S. fire-bombings of Tokyo in March 1944 from two distinct spatial perspectives (figure 2). To begin, follow the designated pathways (marked on the bottom of each page under Contents and with arrows on the side of each page) to read through the module and its primary sources as a linear narrative. For a less linear path, you can use the “Citations and context” tool to jump to related pages (figure 3).

Figure 2. The landing page for David Fedman’s module “Place Annihilation.” Credit: David Fedman.

For more advanced purposes, you may find it productive instead to conceptualize Bodies and Structures as a research environment. Entering the site through the Tag Map or the Complete Grid Visualization will enable you to select and assemble snippets of data about historical spatial structures and experiences of space and place. The site offers some predetermined juxtapositions. Others you can create yourself.

Figure 3. Navigation options using pathway markers or the “Citations and context” tool. Credit: David R. Ambaras and Kate McDonald.

For example, in the Tag Map click on the tag “Built Environments” and then “Experimental Zones” to bring up a list of experimental zones that appear in the site’s modules, including colonized Hokkaido and Xing An as zones of agricultural experiment, Tokyo as a space of encounter and social experiment, and Dugway Utah as a zone of ethical experiment (figure 4). You can also explore tags from the pages on which they appear. In the case of Fedman’s module, explore tags like Dugway Utah and Tokyo on the page “Engineering Urbicide.”

Figure 4. The tag map, with “Built Environments” -- “Experimental Zones” highlighted. Credit: David R. Ambaras and Kate McDonald.

Alternately, use the Complete Grid Visualization to locate a page such as “Engineering Urbicide” and reveal all of its connections to other pages on the site. Selecting “Engineering Urbicide,” shows a connection to Tokyo. Click on the Tokyo square to display its connections. One of these is “A New Kind of Consumer Space” (figure 5). Visit this page, by clicking the Visit button, and you will find a further example of experimental zones, one that we the designers did not notice at the time we built the Tag Map: the department store. The grid’s alphabetic sorting of pages also encourages serendipitous navigation. It situates “Engineering Urbicide” (from Fedman’s module) adjacent to “Embodied Mobilities” (from David Ambaras’s module) and a citation of Nicholas Entrikin’s The Betweenness of Place (from the site’s overview essay). Could this intersection lead you down an unanticipated intellectual path (figure 6)?

Figure 5. “Engineering Urbicide” as part of a grid visualization. Credit: David R. Ambaras and Kate McDonald.

Step Three: Use the Tag Map and Complete Grid Visualization to Generate Research Questions and Revisit Old Stories From New Perspectives

On a cartographic map, frozen in time and space, these types of complex connections are impossible. Cartographic maps nest the experimental zones we refer to above (Hokkaido, Xing An, Dugway Utah, and Tokyo) in four different administrative units and, by implication, as part of stories with four distinct spatial frameworks. What happens when we use Bodies and Structures to map them on the same plane—e.g., from the spatio-temporal perspective of your body as a researcher? You might note that the object of experiment in each of these zones differs, and thus reconsider how the history of experimental zones relates to the broader history of spaces of exception. Or, you might consider how the conceptual or ideological framing of such zones as “experimental” reifies boundaries between stable and unstable places that are in practice fictive, or at least mutable. In short, Bodies and Structures allows you to reflect on the various subjectivities that these spatial encounters forge, and consider how experiences of distance and proximity might diverge from conventional cartographic measurements.

Figure 6. Adjacent pages on the grid. Credit: David R. Ambaras and Kate McDonald.

Step Four: Own Your Map

Liberating digital spatial history from the cartographic map also means remapping the spaces and places of our own scholarship. While we hope that Bodies and Structures changes how we construct the geographic boundaries or spatial frames of our own analyses, we call above all for reclaiming ownership over how we map and why. The map is not a given. We map, and in doing so we produce knowledge. But we also produce fictions, and elisions. Ownership entails the responsibility to map in ways that align with the ethics of our scholarship. Digital tools like Scalar enable new authorial choices. Let’s liberate mapping from the cartographic map, that artifact of imperial days not quite gone by. What’s next is up to us.

Authors’ note: In August 2019 Bodies and Structures was awarded an NEH Digital Humanities Advancement Grant to build a 2.0 version of the site, and help develop a new suite of analytical tools for Scalar.

Three Degrees of Ethical Engagement: A Manifesto for Architects

Three Degrees of Ethical Engagement: A Manifesto for Architects

"The Eyes of Texas are Upon You"

"The Eyes of Texas are Upon You"