Can Non-Representational Space Be Mapped? The Case of Black Geographies

panel / roundtable
  1. 1. Jonathan David Schroeder

    University of Warwick

  2. 2. Clare Eileen Callahan

    University of Texas, Austin

  3. 3. Kevin Modestino

    Howard University

  4. 4. Tyechia Lynn Thompson

    Howard University

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Description: This panel examines the ways spatial and geographical formation in African American Studies have integrated with or failed to integrate with Digital Humanities scholarship and the growing use of mapping technology. Literary and historical scholarship on black geographies has grappled with the epistemological, political, and ethical problems of recovering the locations and routes of black resistance in both the antebellum U.S. and Jim Crow South. Katherine McKittrick has criticized the resulting tendency of scholars to translate blackness as “ungeographic” and Saidiya Hartman similarly writes about the historian’s struggle “within and against the constraints and silences imposed by the nature of the archive.”

See McKittrick, Katherine.
Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota), 5; Hartman, Saidiya.
Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 11.

Literature is, therefore, an important medium for African American Studies because it does not need to be verifiable and, in this way, speaks to “those qualities of spatial and geographical formations that are most difficult to detect from within the established, formalized explanatory frameworks of the physical and social sciences.” Literature, in other words, has an advantage in representing spaces that have failed or have refused to be precisely represented.

What does the unmappability—the precise imprecision of the African-American Archive of resistance--have to say to our employment of mapping tools in the digital humanities? This panel seeks to address not only the possibilities of employing GIS technology to engage with the challenges posed by mapping African American literature (such as location vagueness or deliberate obfuscation), but also how African American Studies scholarship might help us rethink the development of mapping technologies. This panel will (1) prompt a theoretical reflection on how the digital, in its own ephemerality, might offer a privileged medium for thinking and visualizing such spaces and more broadly, (2) reflect on how DH can interact with the fragmentary archive upon which much of African American Studies relies. While literary mapping projects have engaged with the problem of spatial uncertainty in fiction and have developed methods in which to represent that uncertainty, we are interested in exploring how the limits of GIS can allow us to engage critically with deliberate obfuscation, that is, more generally, with the question of what it means to map a space that fostered black agency because of its original unmappability. How can GIS not merely represent spatial uncertainty but also critically engage with the absences and silences of the archive in a way that maintains the integrity of those silences?

Clare Callahan will discuss her work-in-progress, “Not-Quite Digital Cartography,” which employs digital mapping tools to examine the geography of “not-quite” spaces in black “Post- Bellum, Pre-Harlem” literature. This paper will focus specifically on the fiction of W.E.B Du Bois and Pauline Hopkins. African American literature of this period is marked, Callahan argues, by an ambivalence toward representation and the subject to which it is tethered. The novels this project examines reimagine black subjectivity as a departure, in the dual sense of that term, from the history of black fugitivity of the antebellum south and of the Reconstruction period. This project maps, in other words, the literary landscapes characterized by a simultaneous resistance to and demand for representation—the swamp-settlement in W.E.B. Du Bois’s
The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911), the hidden city of Telassar in Hopkins
Of One Blood (1902), for example.

Recent scholarship on digital literary cartography has sought to address digital methods for mapping of literary spaces that only vaguely or tenuously correspond to actually existing geography. In “Mapping Literature: Towards a Geography of Fiction,” Barbara Piatti et al. explicate the possibilities for mapping “imprecise geography” in fiction on multiple spatial levels. Similarly, in “Mapping Literature: Visualisation of Spatial Uncertainty in Fiction,” Ann- Kathrin Reuschel and Lorenz Hurni propose a methodology for mapping a work of literature when “determining the location is only possible imprecisely.”

Barbara Piatti, Hans Rudolf Bär, Anne-Kathrin Reuschel, Lorenz Hurni, William Cartwright, “Mapping
Literature: Towards a Geography of Fiction,” in
Cartography and Art, eds. William Cartwright, Georg Gartner, and Antje Lehn (Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 2009), 1-16; Ann-Kathrin Reuschel and Lorenz Hurni, “Mapping Literature: Visualisation of Spatial Uncertainty in Fiction”
The Cartographic Journal 48, no. 4 (Nov. 2011), 293-308; see also, Eric Prieto, “Geocriticism, Geopoetics, Geophilosophy and Beyond.” Ed. Robert Tally.
Geographical Explorations: Space, Place, and Mapping in Literary and Cultural Studies (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

But few, if any, such scholarly articles propose a
theoretical inquiry into the stakes of mapping spaces that originated in and through concealment and which were sustained only insofar as they eluded mappability. Indeed, such spaces underpin and, in many cases, make possible the black narratives that speak to and of them.

This paper argues, first, that a more sustained theoretical reflection on what it means to map, however imprecisely, what Hortense Spillers refers to as “not-quite” spaces—the hidden geographies of black resistance—must be the first step toward determining a methodology for mapping African-American literary geographies more generally. Second, this paper proposes, through a digital cartography of the fiction of Du Bois and Hopkins, that theoretical reflection on the black spaces that confound the economy of representation prompts a reframing of how digital humanists understand the function of literary mapping in the digital age. The digital is itself, in many respects, a “not-quite” space, neither there nor not there, and may, therefore, open up new possibilities for visualizing and engaging with the literary aesthetic of ambivalence toward representation, toward becoming representable, that Callahan identifies as characteristic of Post- Bellum, Pre-Harlem literature.

Kevin Modestino will talk about his geocoding project, “William C. Nell’s Revisionist Revolution,” which maps out an important abolitionist history, Nell’s
The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1854). This mapping project is an attempt not only to investigate and visualize what Martha Schoolman has identified as the key political interventions of abolitionist geographies but also to ask how digital humanities tools might respond to and be transformed by the African-American literary history.

Schoolman, Martha.
Abolitionist Geographies (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2014).

African-American texts, Modestino argues, present unique challenges to DH tools. In the case of geocoding, a critical awareness of how mapping served as a tool for the surveillance and conquest of enslaved, maroon, and indigenous populations has to remain at the center of any investigation. But just as black historians transformed the imperialist narratives of nineteenth- century nationalist histories from within, it is also possible to imagine a creative mapping of American space that would transform the false totalizations of the base map images utilized in typical DH projects through the overlaying of disfiguring lines of abolitionist flight and revision.

Ernest, John.
Liberation Historiography: African American Writers and the Challenge of History, 1794-1861 (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2004).

By mapping various episodes from Nell's text, we can see a North America overlaid with a least six modes of C19 black movement: 1) two modes of Black Atlantic movement (Middle Pass and Transatlantic); 2) fugitive slave movement; 3) internal slave trade movement; 4) maroonage, and slave revolt geographies; 5) once-occluded geographies of black soldiers at the sites of national memory; and 6) centers of black abolitionist action and organizing. This mapping allows us to see how in even a single text of black American history encodes a multiplicity of critical geographical interventions that can be used to layer the visual narratives of maps with subversive and disfiguring traces.

Jonathan Schroeder will discuss “
Passages to Freedom: Worlding the North American Narrative,” a digital mapping project that he created with Douglas Duhaime at the Yale Digital Humanities Laboratory in 2017. In its current iteration,
Passages maps the routes taken out of slavery by the authors of 22 of the 103 extant pre-emancipation slave narratives. When completed, it will map the 286 pre- and post-emancipation texts that make up the University of North Carolina’s
North American Slave Narrative corpus. The aim is to study black mobility in a different light, first by demonstrating that the slave narrative is empirically and emphatically a global genre. Authors from Olaudah Equiano to Henry “Box” Brown traveled by rail, sail, and even mail to escape slavery. Yet despite the surge of interest in questions of black fugitivity, no comprehensive study of black mobility in this genre exists today, and in fact very few surveys of the genre have been performed since landmark studies of the 1970s like Frances Smith Foster’s
Witnessing Slavery. What types of mobility can be distinguished within the genre, which constitutes perhaps the richest and most important source of descriptions of black mobility? Are there characteristic forms of mobility that correspond to the three phases of the narrative – slavery, flight, and fugitive freedom?

In light of the setting for this talk, Schroeder will devote specific attention to the question of how digital methods can both help and obscure the various knowledges that humanists have teased from these narratives. For example, while Frederick Douglass’s
The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) is quite clearly a masterful instance of political rhetoric, it is only when we begin to think in geographic terms that we can see that it is the most location-specific narratives in the entire genre, providing street-level information about 1830s Baltimore to help demonstrate the most granular effects of slavery.

At the same time, the effort to map these narratives also raises highly important questions about symbolic representation, as the data extracted from these narratives differ radically in terms of degree of specificity, frequency, and related factors. For example, the repetitive movements associated with slave labor and shipping routes (frequently the occupation of fugitive slaves) are difficult to represent using standard mapping techniques and point to alternate forms of representation like digital animation.
In exploring the tensions that arise when black geographies and mobilities are translated into the digital research environment, Schroeder will give an account of the findings, insights, and problems raised by the project, while also inviting audience members to participate in the shaping of the future of the project.

Tyechia Lynn Thompson will discuss the creation and revision of her project, “
Baldwin’s Paris,” which quantifies, visualizes, and analyzes over four decades of James Baldwin’s writings about Paris. Her talk will open with a consideration of the method she used to create the project and conclude with a consideration of her current focus on UI/UX design in its recreation.

In its formative stages,
Baldwin’s Paris steered close to Matthew Jockers’s claim that “a good deal of computational work is specifically aimed at testing, rejecting, and confirming, what we think we already know.”

Jockers, Matthew.
Text Analysis with R for Students of Literature (New York: Springer, 2014)

Yet if Jockers used R to demonstrate empirically that
Moby-Dick is an aberration from 1,000 contemporaneous American novels, Thompson’s project initially sought to gauge the significance of Baldwin’s post-1963 work by testing Baldwin’s representations of Paris via Google Earth. Despite limitations to this method, which necessitated significant guesswork due to placemarking inaccuracies in aerial and street view photography, it served as a launch pad to begin a critical analysis of Baldwin’s work.

In the project’s further elaborations and revisions, Thompson critiques the use of geographic information system tools to “map” a writer who had experienced extensive surveillance by the FBI. This critique is informed by African American literary theories of place, especially Toni Morrison’s “literary archeology” and Baldwin’s notions of being in “contact” and being a “witness.”
The next stage in the development of “Baldwin’s Paris” will move beyond the initial work of tagging locations in Baldwin’s texts to embedding the theories of literary archeology, being in contact and being a witness, into Carto and the interface of the site. For it is in UI/UX design that the connections between data, tool, and critique ultimately lie.
This panel ultimately seeks to think through a hybrid empirical-theoretical approach; that is, a hybrid of the empirical methodologies that have characterized DH and of the more theoretical concerns of traditional humanities scholarship. The panel will ask what new methodologies, for both working with existing digital tools but also for directing the conceptualization of new tools informed by the unique demands of black literary geographies, emerge from the above hybrid frameworks: the mapping of the aesthetic of ambivalence toward representation in post-bellum black literature, mappings that subvert totalizing narratives of abolitionist history through disfiguring lines, the geographic tensions of black mobility in slave narrative, and the cartographic exploration of the connections between data, tool, and literary critique.

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Conference Info


ADHO / EHD - 2018

Hosted at El Colegio de México, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) (National Autonomous University of Mexico)

Mexico City, Mexico

June 26, 2018 - June 29, 2018

340 works by 859 authors indexed

Conference website:

Series: ADHO (13), EHD (4)

Organizers: ADHO