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The Triumph of the Humanities By Stanley Fish, New York Times
|| 6/13/2011 || 11:50 pm || + Render A Comment || ||

Geohumanities, the recently published book that features my map “The Modern Geographer” on the cover, was reviewed in the New York Times by Stanley Fish:



June 13, 2011, 8:30 PM

The Triumph of the Humanities

By STANLEY FISH

Our house in the western Catskills overlooks the Pepacton Reservoir, a 20-mile ribbon of water between Margaretville and Downsville. Maps on the Internet, depending on their scale and detail, will show you where the reservoir is in relation to nearby towns and roads. What they won’t show you, although every resident of the area knows about them, are the four towns — Arena, Shavertown, Union Grove and Pepacton — that were flooded in the middle ‘50s so that the reservoir could be constructed. (Today, after more than 50 years, resentment against New York City remains strong.)

The maps and pictures of the reservoir are determinedly linear; the eye follows the water in its journey down Route 30 toward the city. But for the the old-timers, and the new-timers who have been caught up in the romance of the lost towns, the eye stops and looks down to what are now the geological layers of civilizations, one on the surface and claiming a literal, no-nonsense empirical reality (“If you want get from Andes to Downsville, you can travel on either side of the reservoir”), and the other below the surface, where lie subterranean Brigadoons that emerge not every hundred years but whenever the reservoir gets so low that pieces of a drowned culture suddenly and unnervingly come into view. At those moments the eye simply cannot travel the straight line encouraged by visible coherences and road signs; the natural pull of forward progress is forestalled and one begins to ruminate on what lies beneath our every step as we raise our feet to take the next one.

There is now a (relatively) new discipline in which this breaking down of time into spatial units that are read vertically rather than horizontally is the obligatory gesture. It calls itself GeoHumanities and its project is nicely encapsulated in the title of one of the essays in a collection that officially announces the emergence of a field of study. The collection is called “GeoHumanities: Art, History, Text at the Edge of Place”; the essay (by Edward L. Ayers, an historian and president of the University of Richmond) is entitled “Mapping Time.”

Ayers’s project is to map the changes that followed upon the emancipation of the slaves after the Civil War. He and his colleagues begin with a simple map and then they locate populations on the landscape and “put down one layer after another: of race, of wealth, of literacy, of water courses, of roads, of railways, of soil type, of voting patterns, of social structure.”

The layered picture that results can then be “read” and a story can be told, the story of complex relationships that are frozen by the analysis but which, of course, are really in motion. The next step is to acknowledge the motion by using cinematic techniques that present the passage of time as spatial units that succeed one another. “By converting time to motion,” says Ayers, “we can visualize the passage of time (as one watches the hands of a clock move).”

Ayers calls this technique of representation “deep contingency,” and he acknowledges its artificiality. The metaphor of a layered reality “is a fiction of course, since the layers continually interact and the ‘top’ layer of humans constantly changes the ‘bottom’ layer of landscape; but it is a useful fiction, since it reminds us of the structural depth of time and experience.” The project is a synthesis of geography (now renamed Geographic Information Science, or GIS) and history: “GIS is about patterns and structures; history is about motion; by integrating the two, we can see layers of events, layers of the consequences of unpredictability.”

That is, we can read events not merely historically, as the product of the events preceding them, but geologically, as the location of sedimented patterns of culture, economics, politics, agriculture. What is being attempted is a reorientation of perception, an alternative way of interpreting the world in which “space is not merely in the service of time, but has a poetics of its own, which reveals itself through a geographical or topological imagination rather than a historical one” (Paul Smethurst, “The Postmodern Chronotope”).

The interplay in these quotations between a literary and a geographical vocabulary tells us what GeoHumanities is all about; it is the elaboration, by methods derived from the humanities, of “the stratified record upon which we set our feet” (the title of another essay and a quote from Thomas Mann). It is the realization, in a style of analysis, of the “spatial turn,” a “critical shift that divested geography of its largely passive role as history’s ‘stage’ and brought to the fore intersections between the humanities and the earth sciences” (Peta Mitchell in “GeoHumanities”).

“Intersections” is perhaps too weak a word, because it suggests two disciplines that retain their distinctiveness but collaborate occasionally on a specific project. The stronger assertion, made by many in the volume, is that the division between empirical/descriptive disciplines and interpretive disciplines is itself a fiction and one that stands in the way of the production of knowledge.

An apparently empirical project like geography is, and always has been, interpretive through and through. “The map has always been a political agent”(Lize Mogel), has always had a “generative power” (Emily Eliza Scott), and that power can only be released and studied by those who approach their work in the manner of literary critics. Geography “demands a reader who is at once an archeologist, geologist and geographer, a reader who … is at all times attentive to the stratification of history, memory, language, and landscape and who can read obliquely through their layers” (Peta Mitchell).

If interpretive methods and perspectives are necessary to the practice of geography, they are no less necessary to other projects supposedly separate from the project of the humanities. And that is why, in addition to GeoHumanities, we now have Biohumanities (“the humanities not only comment on the significance or implications of biological knowledge, but add to our understanding of biology itself” — Karola Stotz and Paul E. Griffiths), Disability Studies (of which the X-Men films might be both a representation and an instance), Metahistory (the study of the irreducibly narrative basis of historical “fact”), Law and Literature (the laying bare of the rhetorical and literary strategies giving form to every assertion in the law), Cultural Anthropology (an inquiry into the very possibility of anthropological observation that begins by acknowledging the inescapability of perspective and the ubiquity of interpretation), Cultural Sociology (“the commitment to hermeneutically reconstructing social texts in a rich and persuasive way” — Jeffrey C. Alexander and Philip Smith), and other hybrids already emergent and soon to emerge.

What this all suggests is that while we have been anguishing over the fate of the humanities, the humanities have been busily moving into, and even colonizing, the fields that were supposedly displacing them. In the ‘70s and the ‘80s the humanities exported theory to the social sciences and (with less influence) to the sciences; many disciplines saw a pitched battle between the new watchwords — perspective, contingency, dispersion, multi-vocality, intertextuality — and the traditional techniques of dispassionate observation, the collection of evidence, the drawing of warranted conclusions and the establishing of solid fact. Now the dust has settled and the invaded disciplines have incorporated much of what they resisted. Propositions that once seemed outlandish — all knowledge is mediated, even our certainties are socially constructed — are now routinely asserted in precincts where they were once feared as the harbingers of chaos and corrosive relativism.

One could say then that the humanities are the victors in the theory wars; nearly everyone now dances to their tune. But this conceptual triumph has not brought with it a proportionate share of resources or institutional support. Perhaps administrators still think of the humanities as the province of precious insights that offer little to those who are charged with the task of making sense of the world. Volumes like “GeoHumanities” tell a different story, and it is one that cannot be rehearsed too often.


Source: New York Times



GeoHumanities: Art, History, Text at the Edge of Place
|| 5/26/2011 || 4:25 pm || + Render A Comment || ||

My map “The Modern Geographer” graces the cover of this new book published by Routledge. This map was previously used as the cover art for the symposium program that helped lay the groundwork for this book. I received my copy and am looking forward to reading it.

GeoHumanities: Art, History, Text at the Edge of Place - The Modern Geographer by Nikolas Schiller

Publication Date: May 26, 2011

In the past decade, there has been a convergence of transdisciplinary thought characterized by geography’s engagement with the humanities, and the humanities’ integration of place and the tools of geography into its studies.

GeoHumanities maps this emerging intellectual terrain with thirty cutting edge contributions from internationally renowned scholars, architects, artists, activists, and scientists. This book explores the humanities’ rapidly expanding engagement with geography, and the multi-methodological inquiries that analyze the meanings of place, and then reconstructs those meanings to provoke new knowledge as well as the possibility of altered political practices. It is no coincidence that the geohumanities are forcefully emerging at a time of immense intellectual and social change. This book focuses on a range of topics to address urgent contemporary imperatives, such as the link between creativity and place; altered practices of spatial literacy; the increasing complexity of visual representation in art, culture, and science and the ubiquitous presence of geospatial technologies in the Information Age.

GeoHumanties is essential reading for students wishing to understand the intellectual trends and forces driving scholarship and research at the intersections of geography and the humanities disciplines. These trends hold far-reaching implications for future work in these disciplines, and for understanding the changes gripping our societies and our globalizing world.


About the Authors
Michael Dear is Professor of City and Regional Planning at the University of California Berkeley. His interests are in comparative urbanism and the US-Mexico borderlands. Recent publications include: Urban Latino Cultures; la vida latina en L.A., The Postmodern Urban Condition, and Postborder City: cultural spaces of Bajalta California.

Jim Ketchum is special projects coordinator and newsletter editor for the Association of American Geographers in Washington, D.C. A cultural geographer with interests in contemporary art and visual culture, his research examines the ways that artists use geographic perspectives and technologies in responding to war. He received his PhD from Syracuse University in 2005.

Sarah Luria is Associate Professor of English at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. She is the author of Capital Speculations: Writing and Building Washington, D.C. (University of New Hampshire Press, 2006). Her current book project is a study of land surveying and property making in the work of Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, and Robert Moses.

Doug Richardson is Executive Director of the Association of American Geographers (AAG). He previously founded and was President of the firm GeoResearch, Inc., which invented, developed, and patented the first interactive GPS/GIS (global positioning system/geographic information system) technology, leading to major advances in the ways geographic information is collected, mapped, integrated, and used within geography and in society at large. He has worked closely with American Indian tribes for over twenty years on cultural and ecological issues, and is the Project Director of the AAG’s National Endowment for the Humanities funded Historical GIS Clearinghouse and Online Research Forum.


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The Modern Geographer is featured in Pro-Prosições vol.20 no.3 Campinas Sept./Dec. 2009
|| 2/25/2010 || 2:18 pm || + Render A Comment || ||

On April 1st, 2009 I received an e-mail the author Jorn Seemann, a graduate student at Lousiana State University, requesting to use my piece “The Modern Geographer” in an upcoming peer-reviewed article for the 10-year-anniversary issue of the Brazilian journal Pre-Posicoes (Universidade Estadual de Campinas, UNICAMP). I was expecting to have to send him a larger version of the work, but to my chagrin the on-line version was able to work for publication.


O quadro O geógrafo não é apenas um objeto perfeito para uma leitura geográfica de imagens, mas também uma fonte quase inesgotável de inspiração para discutir o passado, o presente e o futuro da geografia. A composição de cores, objetos e sombras abre espaço para interpretações múltiplas. Provavelmente nenhuma delas corresponderia ao que Vermeer tinha pensado quando pintava o quadro. O significado original pode perder-se no decorrer do tempo, mas isso não invalida as nossas ponderações. De forma semelhante às iniciativas dos geógrafos de desconstruir os mapas, as obras de arte também podem ser re-significadas como “meios de encontrar [finding] e depois criar [founding] novos projetos, efetivamente re-formando o que já existe.” (Corner, 1999, p. 224). Um exemplo do presente é o Geógrafo moderno, de Nikolas Schiller (Figura 8), que mostra clones do geógrafo cercando uma mulher cujo corpo é uma estampa de fotos aéreas de Washington, DC.


I will have an English translation on-line shortly…..



The Modern Geographer
|| 3/25/2005 || 11:55 am || Comments Off on The Modern Geographer || ||

This is my first draft of what I am calling “The Modern Geographer.” The background is a painting titled “The Geographer” by one of my favorite painters of all time, Johannes Vermeer. I scanned a picture I had of the painting and modified it to give it symmetry. I used a poser from one of my programs and mapped her body with the 2002 USGS aerial photography of the area around the White House in Washington, DC. I ended up rendering it at 8000X6000, but I realized that when I scanned the painting, I scanned it too large so that if you look closely you can actually see the RGB colors dots from the printer. I am going to rescan to the painting so I can downsample it slightly and make the colors a bit more richer. I’m still not sure where I should place the poser, or if I should include more posers, possible give her a globe to gaze at, she is a Modern Geographer afterall…


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Nikolas Schiller is a second-class American citizen living in America's last colony, Washington, DC. This blog is my on-line repository of what I have created or found on-line since May of 2004. If you have any questions or comments, please contact:

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  • thank you,
    come again!