Reflections: Beyond Thriller in Spatial History

The ‘spatial turn’ has come to history in waves, and since the term carries multiple meanings, it has sent historians off in a number of directions with a new, or renewed appreciation for space. With some exceptions, the theoretical engagement has still been relatively limited – or at least relatively recent, when compared to fields such as anthropology, art history, sociology, literary studies, urban studies, and most of all geography. A student in the UK or the United States may well complete their undergraduate degree in history with only the opportunity to explicitly think about space in the abstract through the reading of Edward Said’s Orientalism, and since the work doesn’t not frame itself in such blunt or limited terms, this reading may not come to mind as one way to approach spatial history. Beyond this, for theoretical inspiration, we turn to Henri Lefebvre with ready enthusiasm (or else direct that enthusiasm to the few secondary works that can help explain him to us), dive into our notes on Foucault, and revisit our favourite forty pages of Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life.

I have not found it particularly unusual to encounter spatially interested historical scholarship exclusively embracing the terms, assumptions, and frameworks of theoretical scholarship published before the début of Michael Jackson’s album “Thriller” nearly thirty five years ago. I am reminded of a historian who excitedly introduced, at great length, the apparently innovative idea of a “public sphere” explored by one Jürgen Habermas, and applied it mechanically to the development of late Meiji period discursive space in Japan. One complaint I heard afterwards showed exasperation for any such use of “theory” in a “history” talk, but a horrified sociologist sitting next to me looked like she had dropped in on a telecommunications conference to find a key speaker demonstrating the use of the telegraphic Baudot code in the encoding of email messages. For the speaker, the term “public sphere” and one proposed way to theorize it some fifty years ago was embraced as a hammer of solid unrusted metal, with the source material a nail. Wack! And the work is done.

The tragedy here is not the embarrassment at discovering that we are wearing clothes that are out of fashion. In one way, it is closer to the opposite, it is the desperate grasp for an approach ready-at-hand itself that is a little sad to witness – the reach for something shiny protruding from the toolbox and immediately, uncritically, putting it to work. It is completely understandable, of course. As historians, many of us are often deep in our own source material or a gripping project of the moment, and can barely follow developments in our increasingly specialized fields, let alone find the time to take a crack at a rich and varied literature on the theoretical issues that hang like shadows over the fundamental assumptions, categories, and arguments in our work. The temptation then is to find a big name, a well-cited text, a tuple of concepts, a juicy frame – and then never look back. What is lost are the gains from making even some limited effort to explore classic theoretical questions in the context of a broader conversation, in a comparison with several voices from a time, or the development or rejection of particular approaches by other thinkers in the years thereafter – not only in the field they originated in, whether geography, philosophy, anthropology etc., but as they crossed disciplinary boundaries. In other words, to take theory seriously.

Unless you embrace a positivist history that peers transparently at the past, undisturbed by any distracting epistemological doubt, failure to take theory seriously comes at the cost of unexamined assumptions and lost opportunities to put our own scholarship into conversation across disciplinary boundaries. Limiting ourselves to spatial history, for example, if asked questions with such interdisciplinary interest as, “What is space?” “In what ways is it abstract or concrete?” “To what extent is it something experienced and/or the product of representation?” “What forms does it take?” “How does it come to be?” “What is its relationship to time?” “What is its relationship to culture? To gender? To economic structures? To the domestic and intimate? To politics and power?” “Why does it matter?” “What is place? What is its relationship to space?” we may have thought at some greater length about one or several of these questions as they pertain to our own problems of interest. We may know what a single favourite classic text had to say about this. We are likely to have come across historical work that engages with it in a deeply empirical way. But I believe that we often undervalue the time spent on the hard work of wrestling with not one or two towering classics in order to deploy them, but tracing the echoes of these often theoretically heavy works forward to consider the critiques and development of these ideas in the years beyond – especially the long afterlives of pre-Thriller classics. In other words, rather than just reaching for a knife and returning to our work, step into the kitchen and spend a little more time with the cooks of multiple shifts. Appreciate and refuse to be overwhelmed at the multiplicity of approaches, and feel no need to return to your work married to any one final answer.

In a few upcoming posts here in the coming months, I want to occasionally practice what I preach and share one historian’s reading of some of the broader literature on space. With a few initial exceptions, I want include works beyond the 1970s, “beyond Thriller” and the 1980s, and reflect on some the critiques of earlier work that we can find there. I’ll begin this summer, with a few postings on the pre-Thriller works of the “humanistic geographer” Yi-Fu Tuan, and the Japanese ethnographer Kon Wajirō.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *