Last day in Indiana

It’s my last day in Indianapolis. It’s been hard work and I’ve met some great people. I’ve experienced Indianapolis’s hottest day since 1954, and *really* learned to appreciate good air conditioning. Have we, in the last two weeks, defined what a deep map actually is? In a sense we did, but more importantly than the semantic definition, I reckon we managed to form a set of shared understandings, some fairly intuitive, which articulate (for me at least) how deep mapping differs from other kinds of mapping. It must integrate, and at least some of this integration must involve the linear concepts of what, when and where (but see below). It must reflect experience at the local level as well as data at the macro level, and it must provide a means of scaling between them. It must allow the reader (I hereby renounce the word ‘user’ in relation to deep maps) to navigate the data and derive their own conclusions. Unlike a GIS – ‘so far so Arc’ is a phrase I have co-coined this week – it cannot, and should not attempt to, actualize every possible connection in the data, either implicitly or explicitly. Above all, a deep map must have a topology that enables all these things, and if, in the next six months, the Polis Center can move us towards  a schema underlying that topology, then I think our efforts, and theirs, will have been well rewarded.

The bigger questions for me are what does this really mean for the ‘spatial humanities’; and what the devil are the spatial humanities anyway. They have no Wikipedia entry (so how can they possibly exist?). I have never particularly liked the term ‘spatial turn’, as it implies a setting apart, which I do not think the spatial humanities should be about. The spatial humanities mean nothing if they do not communicate with the rest of the humanities, and beyond. Perhaps – and this is the landscape historian in me talking – it is about the kind of topology that you can extract from objects in the landscape itself. Our group in Week 2 spent a great deal of time thinking about the local and the experiential, and how the latter can be mapped on to the former, in the context of a particular Unitarian ministry in Indianapolis. What are the stories you can get from the landscape, not just tell about it.

Allow me to illustrate the point with war memorials. The city’s primary visitor information site, visitindy.com, states that Indianapolis has more war memorials than any city apart from Washington D.C.. Last Saturday, a crew of us hired a car and visited Columbus IN, an hour and a half’s drive away. In Columbus there is a memorial to most of America’s wars: eight by six Indiana limestone columns, arranged in a close grid formation with free public access from the outside. Engraved on all sides of the columns around the outside, except the outer facing edges, are names of the fallen, their dates, and the war in which they served. On the inner columns– further in, where you have to explore to find them, giving them the mystique of the inner sanctum – are inscribed the full texts of letters written home by fallen servicemen. In most cases, they seem to have been written just days before the dates of death.  The deeply personal natures of these letters provide an emotional connection, and combined with the spatiality of the columns, this connection forms a very specific, and very deliberately told, spatial narrative. It was also a deeply moving experience.

Today, in Indianapolis itself, I was exploring the very lovely canal area, and came across the memorial to the USS Indianapolis. The Indianapolis was a cruiser of the US Navy sunk by Japanese torpedoes in 1945, with heavy loss of life. Particular poignancy is given to the memorial by a narrative of the ship’s history, and the unfolding events leading up to the sinking, inscribed in prose on the monument’s pedestal. I stood there and read it, totally engrossed and as moved by the story as I was by the Columbus memorial.

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USS Indianapolis memorial

The point for deep maps: American war memorials tell stories in a very deliberate, designed and methodical way, to deeply powerful effect in the two examples I saw. British war memorials tend not to do this. You get a monument, lists of names of the fallen and the war in question, and perhaps a motto of some sort. An explicit story is not told. This does not make the experience any less moving, but it is based on a shared and implicit communal memory, whose origins are not made explicit in the fabric of the monument. It reflects a subtle difference in how servicemen and women are memorialized, in the formation of the inherently spatial stories that are told in order to remember them.

This is merely one example of subtle differences which run through any built environment of any period in any place, and they become less subtle as you scale in more and more cultures with progressively weaker ties. Britain and America. Europe, Britain and America. Europe, America and Africa, and so on. We scale out and out, and then we get to the point where the approaches to ‘what’ ‘when’ and ‘where’ – the approaches that we worked on in our group – must be recognised not as universal ways of looking at the world, but as products of our British/American/Australian backgrounds, educations and cultural memories. Thus it will be with any deep map.

How do we explain to the shade of Edward Said that by mapping these narratives we are not automatically claiming ownership of them, however much we might want or try not to? How deep will these deep maps need to go…?

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One Response to “Last day in Indiana”

  1. NEH Fellowship for the Polis Center Institute on ‘Spatial Narrative and Deep Maps: Explorations in the Spatial Humanities’ | mia ridge Says:

    […] Last day in Indiana […]

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