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Visualizing Spatiality in a Colonial Landscape

Posted in Digital Humanities, and Percolating Ideas

What would a map of French colonial Algeria or the American Midwest look like if we took a humanistic epistemological approach? How would such a map change if it took into consideration the humanistic notion that space is a construct influenced by perception (of travel times, of fear, of violence, of land rights, of agricultural production, of relations with one’s neighbors, etc.)? What kind of information would such a map yield?

What if we could create maps that represented settler’s perception of space and Indigenous perceptions of that same space? What might such a comparison offer the scholar of settler colonialism?

This brief post is a thought experiment based on Johanna Drucker’s thought-provoking article, “Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display” (2011).  Drucker calls into question the uncritical application of data visualization tools to humanities projects. The digital graphical displays in common usage have been developed for and by social and physical scientists and therefore reflect epistemologies in direct opposition to those of the humanities:

Realist Assumptions & Epistemology Humanist Assumptions & Epistemology
Observer-independent Observer-dependent
Data (given information, facts) Capta (information taken, interpretations)
World as-it-is World as a construction
Knowledge is fact – based on observer-independent, verifiable, unalterable data Knowledge is constructed – based on observer-dependent, subjective, interpretations of information

Consequently, Drucker argues,

“what is needed is not a set of applications to display humanities ‘data’ but a new approach that uses humanities principles to constitute capta and its display. At stake … is the authority of humanistic knowledge in a culture increasingly beset by quantitative approaches that operate on claims of certainty. … The digital humanities can no longer afford to take its tools and methods from disciplines whose fundamental epistemological assumptions are at odds with humanistic method.” (Paragraph 6, emphasis in the original)

I would like to take her argument a step further. It is essential to apply humanistic epistemology and methods to the display of capta, and, especially for scholars of colonialism, to incorporate Indigenous ways of knowing and seeing in digital visualizations. It is this idea that prompted my earlier pair of questions about how settlers and Indigenous peoples viewed space, and it is a question I am currently tackling in my dissertation.  A graphical depiction of each would greatly assist a textual explanation.

For instance, I could use a series of maps of Vincennes, Indiana and the surrounding territory during the last quarter of the eighteenth century to demonstrate how French settlers, Indigenous inhabitants, and newly arrived Americans perceived this space, what influenced their perceptions, and how their views changed over time. In 1776, the village was comprised of roughly sixty French and French-Indian families who saw its borders as permeable and perceived their town as one among a network of French and Indian (and French-Indian) communities, connected by kinship ties, trade, and the navigable river system. However, when Americans arrived in the region, they often fortified their towns, erected visible borders in fences and gates, and created defensive cultural boundaries between themselves and the French and Indian inhabitants. American perceptions of the same space focused on their isolation from the states and from centers of American political and cultural activity along the Atlantic coast. Their perceptions were also influenced by the notion that they were surrounded by hostile Natives on all sides and therefore involved in a common (American) defense of land they viewed as rightfully and legally theirs.

While Indigenous views of land were initially expansive and porous, they soon began to shrink in the face of American encroachments and increasing racially-based violence.  Under the perceived persistent threat the Americans posed, Native civil and military leaders’ perceptions of their territory shrank to parallel American views. Cartographic depictions of notions of shrinking space, of military and cultural isolation based on increasing violence, and the threat Indigenous, French, and American communities felt in proximity to the others would be a powerful presentation of documentary evidence and would complement the textual argument. Such graphical displays would also honor my intention to demonstrate Indigenous perceptions, in addition to those of the settlers, to move beyond black-and-white portrayals of good/evil actors toward a complicated and empathetic understanding of the motivations, hopes, and fears of multiple actors in this shifting colonial landscape.

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