Friday, 30 September 2011

Spatial theory, cultural geography, and the 'spatial turn'

I'm currently working on various seminar papers, and the mood among many historians is that we need theory back in history. James Vernon made an impassioned plea for a return to theory in his plenary lecture for the 2011 Social History Society conference. Basically his message was 'what are we afraid of?' A focus on empiricism has meant we have lost sight of the big ideas, and the big frameworks that shape history. The SHS used to have a theory strand for its conference, but we dropped it a few years ago because the number of papers offered was in decline. In response to Joyce, however, the SHS has reintroduced the 'theory and methods' strand for the next conference. Perhaps this is a sign that theory is back on the agenda.

I too have neglected theory for the past few years. I went on a cultural geography bender in the last year of my DPhil research, and also immersed myself in social movement studies. My first article, 'The Search for General Ludd' was imbued with literary theory (thanks to Kevin Binfield) and postmodernism. The 'linguistic turn' still casts a long shadow on anyone who works with textual documents. I was less concerned with the cultural turn, and moved into more empirical methods with my work on popular protest.

Now historians seem to be taking the 'spatial turn'. I read all the French postmodern theorists during that last DPhil year, so all this seems a little old hat to me, as it is for cultural geographers, who made the initial 'turn' back in the 1990s. Writing my book I have strived to remain empirical and traditional, and avoid quoting de Certeau, Bourdieu, Foucault, et al, just for the sake of it. However, now my structure is crystallising, I've realised that some of my main formulations do fit the tripartite model of space offered by Lefebvre and Soja. It's time to put the theory back in.

So here's a quick cribsheet for the three modes of space, and a hint at where I fit. The spatial turn is useful, as it highlights the semiotics of space in a way that the linguistic turn made historians read between the lines and the cultural turn made historians treat culture as an agent in change.

1.  Radical Spaces: Venues of popular politics in London, 1790–c. 1845 Spatial practice transforms place into space. De Certeau’s much quoted chapter on the act of walking shows how everyday actions can turn places into spaces of meaning and history. Bourdieu similarly underlines the role of spatial practices in moulding understandings of the physical environment. 
2. Radical Spaces: Venues of popular politics in London, 1790–c. 1845 ‘representations of space’. For Lefebvre, representations are ‘tied to the relations of production’.[1] In essence, representations of space are spaces of capital, whose physical form and the meanings ascribed to them are determined by wealth and elites. This model parallels the influential interpretation of sociologist David Harvey, who argued that landscapes reflected the logic (or illogic) of commodity production at any given historical moment.[2] 
3. 'spaces of representation', or lived spaces. This concerns how everyday practice is lived through the spaces constructed by elites and their symbols. This is associated with counter spaces which challenge or subvert dominant spatial practices or spatialities (Jon Stobart et al, Spaces of Consumption, p. 22). It echoes de Certeau, who showed how individuals could reappropriate spaces for uses other than those for which they were intended. Here is where popular agency is situated. 

I'm also quite fond of Foucault's concept of heterotopia.  Radical Spaces: Venues of popular politics in London, 1790–c. 1845 Heterotopias are ‘counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted’ (Michel Foucault, ‘Of Other Spaces’, Diacritics, 16 (Spring 1986), 24) Some heterotopias are associated with sacred or forbidden spaces; others are spaces for those who deviate from societal norms. Significantly, these spaces are linked to ‘slices of time’. Foucault’s first type of heterotopia is infinite, building to timelessness; he gives the examples of museums and libraries.  Radical Spaces: Venues of popular politics in London, 1790–c. 1845 The second type of heterotopia is even more prominent in the history of collective action in this period: transitory or fleeting. Foucault ascribes this to fairs and carnivals, here today gone tomorrow spaces of play, subversion, the world turned upside down. This theme of the carnivalesque, the charivari, is important in the history of popular protest.

So what lessons can we learn from spatial theory? Above all, space is not the inert background to action, but its foreground and in some senses, its agency. However, I am going to include in my seminar papers some warning about 'why I am bored of turning'. The 'spatial turn', based as it is on semiotics and cultural constructions, does not describe everything. It cannot describe the phenomenology of place; it tells us how inhabitants symbolised and understood space, but less about how they felt and experienced spaces. It also lacks distinctive historical contexts, which I will argue are situated in *place* rather than space, and in England, take the form and are shaped by custom and the law in particular. All will be revealed in the book.

[1] Lefebvre, Production of Space, p. 33.
[2] Barney Warf and Santa Arias, The Spatial Turn: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (Abingdon, 2009), p. 3; David Harvey, Spaces of Capital: towards a Critical geography (Routledge, 2001).
Further reading:
Radical Spaces: Venues of popular politics in London, 1790–c. 1845 Don Mitchell, Cultural Geography: a Critical Introduction  (Oxford: 2000); 
Radical Spaces: Venues of popular politics in London, 1790–c. 1845 Beat K├╝min, Political Space in Pre-industrial Europe (Adlershot, 2009)

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Manchester meetings and crowdsourcing data

Do you want to share in my project to map historical meetings in Manchester?

Here is the link to my draft database of public meetings in Manchester, 1775-1848. It's using google fusion tables.
You can map the points by clicking on 'visualise' and 'map'.

I'm thinking about crowd-sourcing it to get more data. I'll set up a separate page to explain the purposes of the database soon, but in the meantime, do add your own data from historical newspapers, Home Office papers, archives, etc. And let me know!

My aim is to show how the type and locations of public meetings in Manchester changed over time. So, for example, radical meetings used St. Peter's Fields from 1816; trades used St. George's Fields from 1808; the loci of meetings moved southwards as Manchester developed between Oxford Road and Chorlton.

The points are plotted on the map (using lat and long grid references and each category of public meeting has its own symbol. So loyal meetings are dark blue, religious meetings are a person at prayer, etc.

The categories are very broad and not meant to be definitive. 'Reform' meetings refer to liberal middle class reform meetings (e.g. during 1830-2), whereas 'radical' can refer to any meeting calling for universal suffrage or other more radical demands. 'Loyal' meetings are Church and King or anti-Jacobin meetings in the 1790s, and specifically anti-reform meetings in the early 19thC. ALCLA= Anti Corn Law League/Association; NPL = anti-New Poor Law.

I'm having trouble locating some of the public houses (directories only specify the street, and pub names aren't shown on maps until the first edition OS of 1846-9).

The only other problem is that I can't export the KML/KMZ file to google earth (and thus onto my historical map layers) without it losing the formatting for the different symbols. There's no way of doing this at present, so I have to rely on the old way of putting the symbols myself on google maps, then exporting it from there.

If you'd like to contribute, or know of any local history groups in Manchester who might want to get involved, let me know:

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Oxford characters

I was saddened to here of Zoe Peterssen's death this week. Here is a link to a story in the Oxford Mail about her.

Zoe was a former academic who gave it all in, as she told me, for nature. She was most often seen sitting on the benches on the long tree-lined approach to Christ Church, drawing trees and flowers on large pieces of paper. She also enjoyed the gardens of St. John's, especially in Spring, as the trees in new leaf there pleased her. I often spoke to Zoe on my wanderings around Oxford and was always heartened by her warmth and her gift of time. She would let me watch her draw, tell me something philosophical, before giving me one of the cards she had made, in return for very little payment. Whenever I was troubled, and taking a walk to think my trouble out, Zoe had an ability to appear at just the right time and place, much more than would be co-incidental; or perhaps I was subconsciously looking for her...

As the story and comments in the Oxford Mail show, Oxford is rich with characters. I don't mean that in a pejorative way, as I admired them all. There are individuals whom everyone who has ever lived in the city will recognise and have some nickname for or some story about. So say to someone who has lived in Oxford, 'Did you see the tree-drawing lady/'Ragdolly Anna'/one man band'/(if you go to any gig)'the dancey lady' among many others, will elicit instant recognition of who you're talking about. I think it's an unusual characteristic specific to the city. Oxford is just the right size and attracts the right sort of eccentrics and individuals. Here's to them.