Locating the Past: part III

Finally, Tim Hitchcock of the University of Hertfordshire gave the plenary lecture, 'Place and the Intellectual Politics of the Past'.

It was a lecture of two halves. First, he lamented the lack of collaboration of historians and geographers, who have been divided by the STEM vs arts fragmentation encouraged by universities and funding bodies. He reflected on the 'spatial turn' currently en vogue among historians, which he rightly suggested was a casual rapprochment with geography that was motivated by current academic fashions rather than a genuine desire to connect methods.

The 'spatial turn', as I have commented elsewhere, is in my view another extension of the cultural turn. It has a valuable emphasis on the symbolic and representative elements of space, but cannot provide a complete answer to the wider structures influencing historical action. Principally, it disregards the importance of place (as defined by custom, law, belonging, memory) in society and the economy.

Yet as Southall pointed out at the start of the day, Hitchcock underlined the problem in bridging the divide. Most historians still trade in text, mediated in ambiguity and disagreement. Yet most geographers trade in places, of known certainty.

With the advent of the internet and digitised sources, however, we no longer read circumscribed number of texts in detail. We are moving towards what Franco Moretti calls 'distant reading'. This is where Hitchcock pointed to the possibilities offered (and indeed already beginning to be achieved) by his involvement in such projects as Old Bailey Online, London Lives and Connected Histories. Digitised texts and connected data provide the bridge between geography and history, and point to whole new ways of thinking about historical evidence. Hitchcock argued that we now 'share a new culture of data', and this, he provocatively asserted, could and should lead to a 'bonfire of the disciplines'.

The second half of the lecture gave a more muted warning. Despite the amazing possibilities of data mining, geo-semantic tagging, etc,  Hitchcock worried that we could become too immersed in technological approaches to history and geography. There was too much data and too few people.

He therefore closed with a tale of the late 18th/early 19th century street character Charles MacKay/McGee, who frequented the same spot outside the Wilkes obelisk in Fleet Street every day for more than 30 years. Tim pondered whether ‘some people have a greater right to appear on a map than many buildings’.

A fitting end to an inspiring day of talks and discussion.

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