DEH projects – Mapping Literary Places

January 7, 2014 7:45 pm
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Moving from the more theoretical tone of the last blog post DEH Musings, I would like to offer a more concrete image of how I have seen DEH projects taking shape. For a quick overview of some of the exciting projects led by the DEHN workshops, you can have a look at this DEH Projects page. What becomes clear when browsing these projects is the broad understanding of the term digital: some of the projects use the digital to disseminate new knowledge in the area of the environmental humanities, others to create new knowledge in the area of the environmental humanities, and still others to establish new scholarly networking communities in the environmental humanities. These multiple functions of the digital – dissemination, creation, and networking – are all key to the environmental humanities.

I am still not sure, though, what the environmental humanities bring to the digital or more precisely why the environmental humanities might interest digital humanities scholars. Does EH simply offer new objects of study to DH? There is certainly a wealth of new scholarship on the environment that has been produced in the last thirty years (although Google N-gram viewer shows a slight decrease in the word “environment” in their collection of books published between 2000-2008. Using text analysis tools to analyze the environment as a political, economic, scientific, moral concern is certainly one way of bringing EH and DH together. But beyond representing a new set of data to be analyzed, visualized, and explored, what do the environmental humanities bring to the digital humanities? What types of questions might EH be asking that would require the creation of new tools in DH?

To respond to this question, I will outline one specific project that I have been working on that fits with the larger category of literary cartography or mapping places in literary texts. In his Atlas of the European Novel, Franco Moretti harnessed the power of digital tools to identify places in a large number of literary texts. Without getting into the debate about distant reading, I would like to highlight that Moretti’s maps do not raise the question of uncertainty as one of the irreducible elements of cartography. Led by Barbara Piatti, A Literary Atlas of Europe attempts to address this issue by including additional attributes and composed geometries in the maps so that some of the “slipperiness” (Bushell) appears in the visualization of places. Moreover, Piatti’s project works on the scale of both the individual text and a larger collection of texts, bringing together the strengths of close and distant reading.

In terms of my own small project in this area, a former McGill student, Amy Goh, and I have been using Neatline, an open source, online set of add-on tools for Omeka, that allows scholars to “tell stories using time and place.” Focussing on one single contemporary French novel, Michel Houellebecq’s La Possibilité d’une île (2005), we attempted to represent the movement of two specific characters, the 20th-21st century protagonist, and his 25th clone living 3000 years in the future, on two separate maps. We were interested in understanding how the geographic and geological changes affected the journey of the clone Daniel25 as he attempted to reconstruct the life of his human ancestor Daniel1. We quickly came up against the limits of Google maps because the novel’s imaginary future setting did not fit with the geospatial information of contemporary maps. Drawing a map using the descriptions in the novel and overlaying this map on the Google base map will be the next step in the project. At the same time, we discovered that the life of the contemporary protagonist, Daniel1, is very much rooted in a collection of places that he visits and revisits. However limited in scope, this short excursion into literary cartography brought me to the realization that as a reader, I often do not map in my mind the geo-spatial information presented in the text. And yet this information can be essential to understanding the character’s attempts to construct a narrative around the meaningfulness (or meaninglessness) of his or her life. In this case, the digital tool gave me an insight into the text that I might not have had otherwise. At the same time, the limits of this tool quickly became apparent (issues with the timeline when plotting three thousand years in the future). Some of these have been resolved (possibility to overlay maps now exists in Neatline), but Amy and I came to the conclusion that this tool would not be useful for analyzing Houellebecq’s other novels. For example, we chose Timeglider to visualize the precedence that time takes over place in Michel Houellebecq’s earlier novel, Les particules élémentaires (1998).

To conclude, I have been asking myself to what extent literary cartography, very much rooted in the digital humanities, fall under the purview of the environmental humanities. When such work examines the creation of meaning, values, and ethics in the area of cartography, it seems to fit with EH’s emphasis on analyzing how we construct images and discourses about the environment and nature. Given the centrality of maps in our exploration and navigation of environments (over 50% of the world’s population live in urban centres), critical cartography should be a central node of the environmental humanities.

Written by Stephanie Posthumus

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