Thinking About Space

Historyonic’s post “Place and the Politics of Past” hints at what I find to be the real value behind digital mapping and geo-referencing. Sadly, as the author admits, the technology is still not there yet, so to speak, to be able to capture this capability in its entirety. In fact, the very idea is almost too nebulous to pin down. I am thinking about “networks” and what they might mean for the historian.

The word itself has three definitions–As a noun, it’s an arrangement of intersecting horizontal and vertical lines or a group or system of interconnected people or things. As a verb, it’s to connect as or operate with a network. For our sake, I think of a network as a group or system of interconnected people or things, which is still rather ambiguous. But the ambiguity is, perhaps, a good thing for the historian because it suggests that nothing is out of reach.

Anyway, I find the concept of a “historical network” rather interesting and pertinent to my own project. I am attempting to text mine a database of blues and old time country lyrics in an effort to compare the two. In addition, I want to be able to create a database of place names, meaning various locations like states, cities, towns, and counties, and then build a heat map from that database. The goal is to be able to see which places registered the most “hits” and then create an imagined geography for both the Blues and Old Time music based on those locations.

From these place names, we can then pin people to them. For instance, we can tag each bluesman that sang about Memphis to the city, and we can do the same, to be impartial, for each old time artist that mentions Nashville or Atlanta. What we will then have is data allowing us to see how interconnected each genre’s artists were based on the places they sang about. Who knows, this interconnectivity may even cross genres, revealing that the U.S. South, at least in its music landscape, was much more integrated than we might think.

On a related note, “Toward Critical Spatial Thinking in the Social Sciences and the Humanities” brings up another good point about spatial projects and, in my mind at least, networks. The article suggests that rather than thinking “spatially,” we should really be thinking in”spatio-temporal” terms. As in, we should be thinking about and trying to capture not a static representation of space but a dynamic one, where change over time can be easily visualized and understood. Thinking in this way only enhances our understanding of historical networks. If we can project a supposed network over time and space, can we not then see at what points in time the network changes? For instance, drawing again from my own example, if we can situate “memphis’s blues network” over a timeline, can we not start to see changes in that network over time or across certain time periods, say decades or years? Then, we can start making broader historical conclusions about what caused or even what altered human interaction to space.

I am sure there are holes in what I am trying to do, and I am sure this type of project may be more than I can do in a semester. But thinking about both articles has helped me formulate just exactly what I want to do with my project and where my limits might be.

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Hello World–Digital History

Wow. What a hiatus its been. This blog started almost a year ago as a site that featured reviews of Digital History projects on the web. At that time, it was a part of a course requirement for an English course called “Writing for the Web,” a class that should have been called “Digital Theory: English and the Humanities in the Age of New Media.” Of course, I sort of hijacked the course by molding each assignment to cater to my interest in history.

The site then evolved, becoming not just a “Digital History” site but a site that reviewed history of the traditional, non-digital, medium–books, that’s right, I will say it again, books. The site functioned as a way for me to organize my thoughts on works I perceived to be a part of the supposed “historical canon.” But is there such a thing? I quickly found that my “to read” list grew almost lockstep with my “finished” list, a revelation that I took to mean that the “canon” was far too large and far too nebulous to capture in its entirety. In short, my goal proved to be a futile one. But as futile a goal as it may have been, it was an intellectually stimulating practice. Reading the books exposed me to a myriad of complex arguments and topics, which I then grappled with independently, coming to my own–most certainly sometimes faulty–conclusions. In retrospect, it was an invaluable practice in preparation for Graduate School, the next step in my academic and intellectual life.

Now, the site has come full circle–sort of. Once again its being incorporated into a class requirement, but this time, its being done for a true “Digital History” course. As a first year graduate student at Clemson University studying the 19th century U.S. South, it’s my hope that this course will: 1) Sharpen my digital scholarship’s scope. From my previous experience with “Writing for the Web,” I feel that my understanding of digital scholarship straddles the two fields of History and English, a sort of amorphous bubble labeled “Humanities.” I want to make sure that I leave the course with a more grounded understanding of Digital History and how to better incorporate Digital scholarship into my own historical research. 2) I also want to make sure I become much more proficient and skilled in creating digital projects. My previous experience in a digital course had a dual focus, leaning, unfortunately more towards theory than practice. My wish, and it is perhaps a selfish one, is to balance the scale, bringing my functional knowledge to a more even position with my theoretical or academic knowledge. 3). And lastly, I want to make sure I master Arcgis. It’s a software that may or may not have caused me to lose my temper in the past. Digital mapping, in my opinion, has such a vast, untapped potential, and I want to make sure that I am involved in the process of reaching that potential.

This blog has evolved before, and my plan is for it to evolve once again. Going forward, I would like for it to be more of a catch-all–a place to compile all of my writing and intellectual interests accessible on the web. With that being said, over the holidays I was able to read A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, the winner of this years Manbooker Prize. I don’t usually get much time to read fiction, so I made sure that I finished it before getting started with the new semester. The book certainly did not disappoint. It’s a true “tour de force” as one blurb on its back cover claims, amassing a whopping 700 pages and a cast of characters so large that a four page character list had to be included in the front of the book. James harnesses his inner Faulkner in how he experiments with point of view, but his subjects are Jamaican, not Southern. The story is, to be brief and intentionally vague, is about the politically sponsored gang violence so endemic to West Kingston’s brutal ghettos in the 1970s, the failed assassination attempt of Bob Marley, The CIA and the Cold War, and a drug ring stretching from Columbia to New York by way of Jamaica. I will let you figure out just how all of that fits together. If that summary did not tempt you to read it, maybe this interview will:

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