Asking Better Questions

The other night I had one of those eureka! moments that bring me joy and make me crazy. But mostly bring me joy.
As some of you know I've been trying to sort out how to track Queen's Men touring practices in the 1580s by teasing information out of the Records of Early English Drama dataset and looking at it on maps. I had some early success - 1583 record scraps offered what looks like a split tour during the summer months. I've been pinning the record scraps to an ArcGIS online map (and a pretty crappy job I did of it, too) and explaining away the vagueness of my plotting because I don't always have very specific geo references (aside from an extant guildhall here and there, for which I'm grateful.)
The eureka came when it occurred to me that my need to shoehorn that data into this particular digital environment is really incidental and frankly distracting from the more challenging, and elusive, research questions that I should be considering. I've been seduced by satellite-based GIS mapping approaches and stopped thinking about how a 16th century actor-manager sitting in London (presumably) might have planned a months-long tour through the provinces. What did he see? How did he consider the best, most profitable routes to the West and North (I'm working on the assumption that trips through Kent and to the Southeast would have been shorter, more frequently taken hops and therefore more recognizable or comfortable or intuitive.) If he consulted maps, (and of course there's no way to know for sure that he did - and who is he, by the way?) how did he use them to make decisions about the most viable paths from Bristol to Leicester? And would he actually consider a trip to Shrewsbury without making any other stops along the way?

View Larger Map

So, that visualization helps me to consider questions like these, and to identify ways in which I might dig further through that dataset (I need to spend A LOT more time in the Norwich and Kent volumes!) But how valuable, ultimately, is it to spend my time committing to a GIS environment that privileges the now over the then (ArcGIS) when it eludes my need to engage with a lost topography and 400 year-old rhetorical engagement with here and there, place and distance? Does the map above (or, rather, it's more polished descendent) offer the environment I need to do this type of historical temporo-spatial work?

I feel comfortable engaging with the Agas map when thinking about traversing London in the 16th century - my ISE Henry VIII edition includes what I hope will be valuable intersection with the Map of Early Modern London project.1 So why have I resisted engaging with the Christopher Saxton atlas (for example) when considering larger touring questions at the same time? Of course these maps may look quaint or unsophisticated or ... unreal? ... compared with images drilled down from space. But why not embrace that? Why not frame questions of how theatre was used in ways that furthered English nationalist propaganda by working in a space that was drawn to praise that unfolding national identity. Does it's contemporaneousness give me something that a 21st century satellite-transmitted basemap can't? Is my research more or less sound by involving such an artifact in my process? I don't think it's outside my scope to consider that a politico-theatrical impresario like Francis Walsingham might have been looking at a professionally drawn cartographical artifact as he consulted with the Queen's Men about how their tours might support and extend the royal public relations machine at a time when England really was fraught with anxiety about identity and future.

This morning I read Cecilia Lindhé's article, "A Visual Sense is Born in the Fingertips": Towards a Digital Ekphrasis" in DHQ.2 While her consideration of ekphrasis has to do more with digital art and literature than mapping forms of visualization, Lindhé's consideration of locus and memory might also work in cases like mine. And if so, then engagement with Saxton's county-specific atlases (which are not as of now - as far as I can tell - available for stitching onto an ESRI basemap) may offer insights into how an Early Modern thought about negotiating his England.
So the research question I'm going back to is one that performance historians keep raising in different ways. What were these troupes doing on the road throughout the 1580s? Can we infer WHY they were going to some places and not to others because of when and how often they went? What happens when we consider those tour stops in line with political and religious hot spots in that tumultuous decade? How (can?) we articulate modes of deixis (they're coming here ... we went there ..) that further complicate an already problematic idea of the expectation and calculation represented in household and guild records to which we are beholden for understanding where and when the Queen's Men appeared to perform? Mapping certainly helps to reveal patterns and networks that cannot be seen by reading the twenty-seven REED volumes end-to-end. But does that mapping have to be done in a 21st century geospatial post-cartographical environment? I'm beginning to think not. Is there value to pushing back against the need to force my data into .csv files that really don't reflect the places or dates anyway, just so that I can jump up and down and say 'see, GIS works for me, too!' The truth that humanists keep bumping up against is that GIS needs to be remediated or reconsidered to work for those of us whose research subjects are not easily negotiated by means of current conceptions of GIS in the humanities.3 Mapping works for me. And I work in digital spaces. But Mapping and Digital do not require GIS in the way so many of us assume, or are coerced into believing (and to be fair, I've done some coercing of my own over these past few years, and while I'm not sorry I think maybe I did jump headlong a bit.)
So paired with that eureka moment is a feeling of real anxiety. Where does my work fit in the midst of the geospatial boom we're witnessing in DH? What do I do with this thinking and this project?
And a smaller, but related question: how do I tell my GIS-practitioner colleagues that their ESRI-based toolkit may not do it all for me?

  1. Here's a bit of geek squee: I have a person xml:id now!
  2. Lindhé, Cecilia. "A Visual Sense is Born in the Fingertips": Towards a Digital Ekphrasis." Digitial Humanities Quarterly. 7.1(2013). http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/7/1/000161/000161.html
  3. See Bodenhamer, Corrigan and Harris's The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship for better reflections than mine.

2 thoughts on “Asking Better Questions”

  1. I went through the same process of working out when GIS was useful and when it was not in my examination of routes taken by the Moravians in Pennsylvania. Sometimes it is helpful, sometimes not. It all comes down to what kind of interrogative we are using. Is it a where? How far? Or, is it a why? How? By foot? On horseback? By canoe? Where were the dangers? In bad weather, could you use this route? Perspective and experience also determine our spatial thinking…

Leave a Reply

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