What is the Spatial Turn?

What is the Spatial Turn?

What is a turn? Humanities scholars speak of a quantitative turn in history in the 1960s, a linguistic and cultural turn of the 1980s in history and literature, and even more recently an animal turn. Beyond the academy, to turn implies retrospection, a process of stopping in the road and glancing backwards at the way by which one has come.

May the weary traveler turn from life's dusty road and in the wayside shade, out of this clear, cool fountain drink, and rest

R. E. Speer, “Robert Burns,” Nassau Literary Magazine 43 (1888): 469.

“Landscape turns” and “spatial turns” are referred to throughout the academic disciplines, often with reference to GIS and the neogeography revolution that puts mapping within the grasp of every high-school student. By “turning” we propose a backwards glance at the reasons why travelers from so many disciplines came to be here, fixated upon landscape, together. For the broader questions of landscape--worldview, palimpsest, the commons and community, panopticism and territoriality--are older than GIS, their stories rooted in the foundations of the modern disciplines. These terms have their origin in a historic conversation about land use and agency.

This essay documents the contributions of the university disciplines in the period from 1880 to 1960, a moment supremely fertile for academic discourse, when scholars in history, religion, and psychology reflected on our nature as beings situated in space. This spatial moment represented the flowering of social commitment on the part of public intellectuals who addressed the struggles over space that surrounded them. From the 1840s forward, much of western Europe was engaged in a conversation about land reform that pitted the new stewards of expert-led bureaucracy—civil engineers, urban planners, and foresters—against traditional communities and their intellectual spokespeople: Chartists Marxists, Fabians, and legal reformers. From the 1880s forward, legal scholars, archaeologists and historians fixed on the history of the “commons” as a source of records about “community” where records about spatial practice disclosed notions of collective ownership rarely documented in the textual tradition. Public intellectuals like legal scholar Henry Maine, philosopher Ernst Cassirer, urban historian Lewis Mumford, journalist Walter Lippmann, and religious scholar Mircea Eliade combed through historical records, proposed theories of spatial experience, and promoted the terminology of “commons”, “palimpsest,” and “pseudoenvironment,” attempting to coin a universal language for describing spatial experience and its artificial manipulation. In the decades that followed, literary scholars, art historians, and social historians drew on ethnographic methods to document the “worldview” by which collective societies brokered their relationship to land.

Only after 1970 did these languages begin the process of convergence, encouraged by the importation of French theory, in particular the work of Foucault, Lefebvre, de Certeau, and Virilio, which newly emphasized the power relations implicit in landscape under general headings like “abstract space”, place, and “symbolic place,” interpreted through new spatial metaphors like “panopticism.” The resultant spatial turn in literature and art history of the 1970s and 80s did not so much rewrite the old concerns as treat them with an attention to capitalism, surveillance, and power hitherto practiced only within the realm of social history. In departments of Geography, this vocabulary was elaborated into theories of the relationship between power and space “territoriality,” Massey's “power geometry,” and Harvey's “space-time compression.” In the social sciences and humanities, scholars returned to urban history and environmental studies with a renewed interest in the microcosms of everyday life and the macrocosms of global flows. These spatial impulses took a deeper hold with the influx of digital tools. Developed in the 1960s by the Canada Land Inventory, GIS was adapted for use in the social scientists and humanities. Beginning in the 1990s with the GIS survey of ancient Corinth, the uses of GIS began to tempt scholars in archaeology and economic history with a vision of rigorously measurable, infinitely sharable information. By enhancing the clarity with which scholars could speak of spatial problems, GIS encouraged the reopening of spatial questions in the disciplines.

Beyond the academy, GIS opened questions of vertigo-inspiring scale. By scraping spatial data from archives of unprecedented vastness, researchers stood a better chance than ever before of addressing problems of tremendous size. Cartographic projects like Saul Griffith’s maps of land use helped researchers to ask whether in the future we would indeed be able to depend entirely on renewable energy or would be necessarily forced into reckoning with nuclear options.

The spatial turn represents the impulse to position these new tools against old questions. In the pages of contemporary journals, sociologists turn back to Simmel, historians of technology to Mumford, and literary historians to Benjamin. We remember that every discipline in the humanities and social sciences has been stamped with the imprint of spatial questions about nations and their boundaries, states and surveillance, private property, and the perception of landscape, all of which fell into contestation during the nineteenth century. Reviewing the period of spatial emergence from 1880 to 1960 can help us understand the imprint of these questions and the direction that interdisciplinary collaboration may take in the spatial era of GIS.