The art of exploring: flâneurie in an age of mass tourism

Copious notes from Outbounding’s week long discussion (@outbounding) in May – mainly for distant reading, although qus 8 (identity) and 9 (exploration) are worth a closer revisit.

Particpants: Tina Richardson (@concretepost), John Rogers (@fugueur), Eddie Procter (@landscapism) and Bobby Seal (@bobbyseal1), facilitated by Amy Gigi Alexander (@amyggalexander), plus Linda Lappin (@LindaLappin1) and Sartre + Sartre (@SartreAndSartre).

Q1: what is psychogeography (plundered)

Tina: On a fundamental level we are all psychogeographers, whether we realise it or not, as we all respond, in an aesthetic and psychological way, to urban space – even if we do not consciously acknowledge or recognise that. However, in practical terms a psychogeographical walk would have to have some qualities that are beyond a ‘Sunday stroll’ or a walk ‘down the High Street’ to be called ‘psychogeography’.

  • psychogeographical practice inhabits the territory of metaphysical exploration of the intersection between place, human activity (historical and modern), psychological reaction and the natural world; more specifically liminal spaces, often in an urban or edgeland context away from the familiar and the well-trodden; practitioners root out the places that are overlooked, neglected or invisible to the casual eye
  • psychogeography has generally been seen as urban in focus; in some ways almost anti-rural, certainly uninterested in the conventionally sublime or aesthetically pleasing aspects of the countryside
  • such an approach can be prey to easy caricature as the haunt of earnest devotees seeking out and eulogising the most desolate and God-forsaken urban spaces, however it provides a fresh way to read and interpret geographical space and bring together normally disparate subject matter
  • any spatial entity is equally ripe for psychogeographical enquiry – you can get lost or absorbed in a place or landscape anywhere, seemingly everyday places and spaces almost always have intriguing layers and depth to them, whether urban or rural
  • these place-connections can help us find the wonder in our own surroundings – whether historical, political, ecological or something more spiritual or spectral
  • a human response to the places we encounter, often with a lot of personal disclosure (also seen in ‘new nature writing’); it could be argued that this element has become somewhat over-egged…
  • Debord noted the term had a ‘pleasing vagueness’, relating well to how a walk or derive can open up, a sense of looseness and following of unexpected turnings, rather than progressing along a planned route, following signs and the like, with a pleasing tension between a natural urge to know where you are, where you are going – to follow the map – and losing yourself in exploring the moment; a sense of wonder, engaging with the unexplained when least expected
  • writers let a place imprint itself on them rather than the other way around; certain elements can resurface in the mind after you have left a place; by not trying too hard you sometimes discover more, it is a different way of looking at a place; almost actively passive

Greil Marcus: To encounter the unknown facets of the known, astonishment on the terrain of boredom, and innocence in the face of experience.

what is psychogeography?

the short version, via the LRM

Q2: the art/practice of noticing

  • how is ‘noticing’ different from seeing? what are the skills one uses to notice? are there special terms or language used for this kind of experience?
  • looking and looking again – a process of walking through the street which you might know well but using the active process of noticing; transcending the everyday walk into something with an active structure, a deliberate exploration of the space and how it affects the creative mind; the key is adding a structure, so not just looking but looking at the process of how you look
  • various levels of ‘noticing’ – zooming in…on a detail others would drift by, zooming out…a sense of a bird’s eye view looking down on the space (your own internal GPS) to locate yourself in the larger view; then later at home you might realise or discover something else about the space – that is three levels of noticing to start with
  • the repeated journey – how the person connects with the place through which they are moving which brings ’emotional content’, sense data causing mini explosions on our inner map; walking meditation

I strongly dislike it when I have my compass withdrawn by being in a new place and do not having an immediate mapping inside. I am much happier when I know which way is ‘up’. Generally, orientation, for me, starts with an overlay of compass points, and then I need water and or hills and or stations and or monuments (tall buildings, trees, distinct geographical markers, which might be something I, personally, find salient, or might be a wider thing. Usually both, but I have no problem remembering, for example, when in Munich, I am near Max Weber Platz because I think it is AMAZING that an underground station should be named after a sociologist.

  • certain names give you an impression of a walk, for example when places are named after writers; estates and shops designed by the post-war modernists often had sculptures, giving access to art to those who might never visit a gallery, or buildings which could be viewed as sculptural shapes, looking at the everyday in a sculptural way
  • walks which follow the same route during different seasons of the year; collect artifacts and record impressions; the key is to ‘notice’ using numerous senses; the visual stimulants in a given season may not be as pronounced as smells or sounds, or weather
  • looking with a photographer’s eye (artist’s eye, the mindful eye), seeing things in a different light, at different times, means that the relationship with the space evolves,
  • noticing as multi-sense oriented, eg smell walks
  • we don’t just see the things we’ve been conditioned to see, but make the effort to look and notice for ourselves in a creative way; to experience the city, to construct our own mental map of it, we have to walk its streets looking and exploring; wandering at random, letting the city impress itself upon you – it’s a two way street (pardon the pun) actively practising ‘noticing’ whilst being open to ‘letting’ the fresh imprint land on the mind to shape the mental map
  • the act of noticing is absent in most experiences of place as one is always trying ‘to get somewhere’ and so one’s mind is busy, eg ” I had driven by it every day, and never ‘seen’ it.” Later you mind find out more about what you have seen (the layers again – curation?)
  • but there’s a danger of consciously going out to ‘notice’ stuff rather than submit to the experience and find whatever passes over you – sometimes you might not realise what that experience has been till much later
  • a way to take the pressure off is to take photos and just snap away at anything that catches your eye – trying to make it as spontaneous as possible
  • if you are looking to ‘notice’ something specific for research then that is a different thing – more of a survey, eliminating the random and searching for a trace of a something in particular; targeted looking/noticing

The beauty of a practice that is basically walking and looking and using your imagination is that you can bring whatever it is that you *do* know about to it, and then when talking about it you use your terms of reference, and then in the conversation whoever you are talking to uses theirs, and in that way the conversation is a journey of its own, creating, perhaps, a new glossary as it goes along.

Q3: the flâneur (plundered)

John Rogers:  I think the flaneur is a bit of a detour. I see them as modernist poets flouncing around in the countryside slurping down absinthe. Aimless drifters. Whereas the Situationists were revolutionaries – there was nothing aimless in their drifts – they wanted to transform everyday life (so they said anyway). However having a wander around in the city gazing at the rooftops is a lovely pursuit in its own right.

Q4: recording psychogeographic journeys – travel writing and more

  • travel writing and psychogeography are not clearly delineated fields, although individuals tend to prefer one term over another; works can be filed in various places in bookshops; sort-of-travel books are usually shelved with actual travel books
  • the methods of recording walks are as broad as the term psychogeography; with social networking and blogging a whole new raft of psychogeographers have been brought to the fore who did not have a voice before; open source software and GIS have enabled creative walkers to trace their walks and present them in new and exciting cartographic ways
  • is there really a need for a different class of writing? although the idea of a psychogeographic version of a Fodor’s guide is an intriguing one
  • there are certain principles in psychogeography which are absent in traditional travel writing narratives, which often have the goal of going from point a to b with planning and intention; the point here is to offer tools which deepen the travel writing narrative or allow it to come into fruition in new ways
  • a lot of travel writing does involve going from point a to b with planning and intention, but there is a lot of fine travel writing / writing about places which mainly has to do with ‘going with the flow’ or ‘hanging out’ in an interesting place
  • explorations, after all, are housed in our bodies and work their way out from our inhabited spaces before we ever set foot on a pavement

The best writers seem to be able to both allow themselves to experience a space with fresh eyes whilst also having a process where they can approach a place with a frame of mind which might enable them to capture something different, something others may not have picked up, almost like they are feeling the different layers of time in a place, some parts of which might only reveal themselves much later when writing about it.

  • Lawrence Durrell practised the art of ‘silent identification’ while sitting with his eyes closed and his senses open in the ruins of Delphi (described in his essay The spirit of place)
  • when we sit down to write about a place, or about anything, we are often surprised to discover how much we do remember, how much we did pick up, and how many sensations and impressions of the atmosphere we have retained without our conscious knowledge; Italo Calvino’s unconscious and remembrance of place

In most modern psychogeographic writing two key features differ quite dramatically from the work produced by the average travel writer; a strong contrarian streak, an attitude that draws writers to ignore the obvious places that people write about and focus instead on the parts of our cities and other landscapes that are unloved and ignored, the margins, very often the places they walk to from their own front door; it’s as if they’re trying to find the extraordinary in the ordinary; the second is a mixing of forms, a blurring of boundaries, merging autobiography, topography, history, myth, fiction, natural history and travelogue.

  • travel writing has many forms, too, but since it is attached to consumption and commercial narratives and other such things, it (can) lack these qualities; the best so-called travel writing has also always adopted this polymath appproach, for instance the work of Patrick Leigh Fermor and Bruce Chatwin
  • the political angle underpinning writing and practice that might fall under the psychogeographical umbrella, eg issues of land ownership, the tensions between public and private space, trespass, gentrification, displacement of local populations and amenities by corporate or statist development, the list goes on…at a time when walking in certain places and photographing certain buildings can get one into trouble with the authorities, people who like to wander often get an up-close insight into state and corporate power
  • walking in Africa you switch gears and must think like an animal, be attuned to wildlife behavior; in very tangible ways you must resort to a primitive self, and you relate to this landscape as the place where humans began to walk upright
  • walking in Italy or New York I ponder the pentimento effect; this street was something else (a canal) hundreds of years ago, or the lawn was a pasture for sheep; in NYC I walk along streets where I used to live or dine and remember the shops or restaurants long gone, stroll around Grand Central and celebrate that it is no longer filthy; I also explored New York from the waterfront, sailing up and down the Hudson, cruising around Manhattan; it’s like flying; you get a completely different perspective
  • psychogeography as the study of the many layered connections between  our environment and our psyche, as the deep inner maps we make of the places where we live and transit, in which real experiences mingle with ones imagined, desired, or dreamed
  • do we sometimes connect to a space in a different way once we know the reasoning behind a design? the initial pleasure Walter Benjamin experienced on wandering down a Paris boulevard took on a different perspective once he discovered that Baron Haussmann had designed them with the purpose of moving troops at speed and making it harder for dissenting residents to raise barricades; maybe that it why it is sometimes good to explore a place once without knowing the thinking behind the design and then revisit it with that in mind (layers; the issue with guided walks)
  • generally we inhabit our space without noticing its multiple effects on us; part of the pleasure of exploring places is bound up in learning to see, sense, and read them from many different perspectives

Q5: mapping

  • maps drawn by hand after or during a walk can yield interesting results, particularly when annotated: what did they smell, feel, hear? people drawing maps can be further enriched by reflecting on their experience
  • Christian Nold’s bio mapping and emotional cartography are also interesting: what is your body saying during your experience? senses are key, see Wendy MacNaughton’s map of Dolores Park and video on drawing on psychogeography
  • maps represent ownership and power: those who control the maps we use exercise a great deal of power over the way we see the world; when we create our own maps we take back some of that power, important at a time when so much of our urban public space is being privatised
  • practical utility in an emotional map, eg for property sales, walkability, sense of a place etc
  • a visual picture of a journey can have more weight than just opening a commercial map or guidebook, see eg Katie Kowalski’s World mapped as pop art and Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will
  • combine approaches into a multi-layer map so you could see the cityscape, the bio readings, and the personal annotations, a different form of writing that slices through the various levels of experience in an accessible way
  • maps are the artifacts of a psychogeographic exploration as much as a guidebook for travel, a form of curation (ha!)

The Yerba Buena map – by using an old 1847 map and annotations, I can stand by the Transamerica Pyramid and realize that waves from the bay would be lapping at my feet, that there are only a dozen or so buildings on the hillside behind me. Then realize that within 7 years, the shoreline would have moved much closer to what it is today. Now I have a new perception of that place. I can never see it the same way again. That’s what mapping and other reporting can do, invite others to re-envision a place.

  • can the maps created by the Situationists as a consequence of doing dérives be used by a third party to trace the original experience? most are more of a philosophical statement than a means to relive their experience; a number of more recent efforts attempt it, and Rebecca Solnit’s INFINITE CITY falls somewhere in the middle
  • Tina: I would use the umbrella term ‘vernacular maps’ for the maps produced by psychogeographers, although the form they take is multiple; they can be emotional maps (Christian Nold), based on a Situationist model (cut-outs) or highly stylised and made in Photoshop; with the use of new technologies they can also involve GIS
  • does psychogeography apply to non-urban landscapes? the focus seems almost exclusively to be on cities, towns and other human developed spaces (ie nature writing not psychogeog); be guided purely by your senses and your internal GPS/emotions – there are ways to begin a psychogeographic journey which would apply to anywhere; there are plenty of opportunities to wander, as Robert MacFarlane does for example, across the countryside
  • Wikipedia: Psychogeography is an approach to geography that emphasizes playfulness and “drifting” around urban environments. This makes sense, as the Situationist movement is very much anti-consumerist, which is not very relevant outside of an urban landscape.
  • in terms of the flaneur being drawn in a direction or directed by the senses, that’s certainly possible anywhere, however it should be a concentrated effort of rediscovery, which also is possible in more remote places but more necessary and profound in a dense urban area
  • that said, we should always try to discover the new in the familiar, whether it’s a city street, a river valley, or a friend; many photographers photograph an area repeatedly, from a slightly different angle, different lighting, etc – finding the thing(s) hidden in plain sight is the payoff

Wild places are political, radical and storied, urban neighbourhoods drip with rich ecosystems, flora and fauna; we really need to get over any outdated binary divide between urban and rural; drift and get lost wherever your feet take you.

Q6: tools and apps:

  • if psychogeography is wandering, why would an app be useful? is wandering directed, if not, can it be both?
  • a false dichotomy – cf using a map of one city to navigate another city – that map is a tool. An app is a tool. Because of using a tool, it’s possible to meander with even less of a preconceived, or unknowingly hidden, agenda. Think of a metronome. A metronome is a tool for musicians to keep the rhythm. Now consider a metronome that purposely and continuously is out of step. Now consider a mobile app that does exactly that in relation to exploring an urban environment.
  • an app or a map is a way to keep time, keep track, or somehow set out a pattern; do apps give a way to plot points or craft a grid of some kind?
  • typically, m/apps streamline; Google Maps easily tells you the easiest route from A to B, but what if an app obstructs taking the obvious route and has you discover your surroundings as a consequence?
  • it’s not about the tool/app, it’s about how you use it – you could use an app/map to keep track of the routes you’ve already traveled and make sure you’re going somewhere new every time
  • what if, instead of the most direct route from A to B, you want to go the most fragrant route? or the quietest? alternate ways to navigate and experience a place, a navigational guide tailored to a variety of needs, desires, etc
  • a number of apps have popped up over the past few years that provide contextual information for given places as you walk, pulling you into certain areas because you’ve been alerted that there’s info about a particular spot; the danger is that you become so focused on the spots that you miss everything else
  • geocaching apps and challenges – having a guiding tool and a purpose doesn’t hurt the experience one bit, since they are still getting lost on directions that come from someone else; it’s a bit like the suggestion above of using the map of a different city, you’re allowing yourself to see the route through another’s eyes
  • techniques such as walking x blocks before turning then walking another x blocks, alternating when I turn left or right, starting on a street starting with “A” and going in alphabetical order as much as possible, using a bingo style card of things you need to spot: something yellow, a sculpture, a brick house, etc. then letting that guide when and where you vary the route (fortunately I seem to have an uncanny ability to get lost without any help)

Q7: photography and video

  • photography – the use of reflections, giving the viewer a conflated view of two or more places and altering the perspective, forcing the viewer to look at a given place in new ways
  • explore a place with all your senses and place no expectations on it – just let the place be without insisting that it deliver any certain type of experience – that’s when the place reveals its nuances and you can capture its essence in a way that a commercial effort usually can’t

Honor your desire to wander. The level of focus and appreciation you develop while genuinely exploring benefits the people in your life – you become more interested and maybe even a little bit more interesting. That level of focus also contributes to improving the quality of the work you do whatever your profession might be.  A flaneur may sometimes appear to be “wasting time” but in fact important inner work is taking place – savoring life.

  • Tina used a Microsfoft sensecam and a Lomography camera on a collaborative project on the British seaside, Reading the Arcades/Reading the Promenades, eg on a  cheeky little psychogeographic walk down the High Street of the coastal town of Hunstanton: Hello! From Hunstanton
  • psychogeography suggests the ‘found object’ of art making – I used to post a lot of pictures of stuff on the ground, or things that seemed to me to make a gallery of the street, whether intentional or ideally unintentional; see mixed in with documentations of actual street art my ‘finds’: citynoise.org/author/elaine

Q8: psychogeography and identity

  • psychogeography as an expression of identity – attached to political ideas; social or anti-social; identifying with certain movements such as feminism, expressing some kind of personal quest or liberation
  • did the practice change or expand the way you see yourself, or the way you relate to a group or idea; how did these connections come into being?
  • Debord saw psychogeography as an anti-consumerist movement – see The Society of the Spectacle
  • by avoiding the beaten path, you’re putting your focus not on the obvious subjects around you, such as typically consumerist symbols (big billboards, store fronts, etc; Danish things…); by doing a dérive you are anti-consumerist by design
  • Debord suggested that, through the derive and other practices, we can develop a way of experiencing the city that is not defined by consumerism or the commodification of our relationships, taking us to the point he called detournment, the turning round of our consciousness
  • writing the body person – I have become chronically ill and can’t ignore it; I’ve been blogging and taking photos in the city since I got ill, it made sense since I’ve always written diaries, and walked; see The Pleasure Bath

Q9: psychogeography and exploration

  • are psychogeographers acting as an explorer in some way? are the environments you find truly the last undiscovered territories? could psychogeography change the genre of travel writing by changing the object of exploration?
  • I am using the word “explorer” for lack of a better word, but it could also be “adventurer” although this doesn’t necessarily have the same connotations of “discovery”. I note “explorer” can be an antiquated term,  attached to certain misconceptions, but for others, it is positive term. 
  • Will Self called psychogeography “the great means we have to actually explore“; anyone could go to a remote indigenous community, but few people can really see the mouth of the Thames river
  • the idea that the world has been seen, discovered, explored almost to the maximum is particularly poignant to the travel writer, who is actively searching for that ‘exploration’ experience, as well as ways to stretch the limits of the genre
  • Tina: I have a slight problem with the term ‘explorer’ due to its colonial connotations – the same goes for some of UrbExing, a lot of which could be described as the domination of space ‘via the phallus’; aside from that, Sinclair talks about this idea of discovery in an article he wrote in the Guardian called ‘Secret Britain’: “These sites, come upon by accident, prick our imagination, provoke reverie” (2009)
  • remember ‘urban orienteering’? implies mapping but doesn’t have an imperialist slant
  • Gertrude Stein wrote after revisiting Oakland and discovering her childhood home was gone: “I find no there there in my hometown; there is no school, no grocery store, no gas station, main street is a ghost town, but for my memoirs I hope to reconstruct it. Researching the landscape has been a wonderful meander into features I did not appreciate when I was young.”
  • Debord’s famous Class War Games
  • geocaching can lead into the experiences to which psychogeography aspires; also Phil Cousineau’s approach of a pilgrimage to drive exploration or experience – you start out looking for one thing and find something else entirely; a true denouement

Finally…

I believe at its heart psychogeography (however you define it) is about
O sharing the hidden stories of our streets and the people who have lived and struggled here
O understanding the hidden power struggles that shape our lives
thinking about who controls space, who uses it and who doesn’t and why
O (re)mapping and (re)imaging where we wander
O respecting the many diverse communities who make our homes what they are
O starting conversations, having a good time and reclaiming the streets for more than shopping

Sagas and space (6-8) and wrap-up

Week 6 looked at spatiality in visual media, specifically stone, wood and vellum (light edit):

This week again deals with visual media. On the one hand, we focus on picture stones and rune stones and how they develop a concept of space. Kate Heslop gives us an insight in her research on framing strategies and narration on such monumental sources. Oh the other hand, Lena Rohrbach speaks about the specific spatiality of medieval manuscripts, shedding some light on many questions which had to be answered at the beginning of the book culture of the North. Although rune stones and parchments do not have much in common at first glimpse, they are intertwined in their self-referential discussion of space and their function as media.

What are runes, exactly? From the glossary: the individual letters of the runic alphabet, the oldest and only native system of writing used by Germanic peoples. This alphabet, called the futhark after its first six letters (th = þ), is attested in an older version from about AD 150-750 and in later variants. The older runes encompassed 24 letters, whereas the younger runes, emerging sometime before 800, only contain 16. Latin letters, which came in the wake of Christianity, competed with and gradually replaced runes. Only in Scandinavia, because of the late christianization (10th an 11th centuries), did runic writing continue into the Middle Ages.

Runes

In normal parlance, a couple of vids looking at a few picture stones and the layout of manuscripts, potentially thought provoking in the digital age. Judging by the wrap-up this one didn’t really catch fire.

Week 7, sticking a load of words together, is entitled Space – place – landscape: diaspora, folklore, archaeology (edited):

We now return to the Icelandic and North Atlantic landscape, widening the perspective of space with the help of more general concepts. First, Judith Jesch introduces the concept of ‘diaspora’ as a new field of research in Scandinavian studies, then Terry Gunnell examines notions of space, place and landscape in connection with folklore studies, addressing questions of ritual and performance. We also point to a project from another discipline, archaeology. The Mosfell Archaeological Project (vids) is an interdisciplinary research project aimed at constructing a comprehensive picture of human adaptation and environmental change in southwestern Iceland.

So, random corner once more. Looks like week 3 is going to be the standout, with a nod to week 1 for scaring people off.

Judith on The Viking diaspora:
definitions

  • diaspora – originally a term applied to the expulsion of the Jews from Israel and their dispersal around the world; nowadays commonly used to explain a variety of modern phenomena arising from the migration of peoples around the globe – the idea of migration is key to diaspora, but diaspora is much more than just migration
  • the sagas arise precisely out of that ‘consciousness of being connected to the people and traditions of a homeland and to migrants of the same origin in their countries’ that is the primary characteristic of diaspora
  • there was a continuing connection between Iceland, the homelands of the settlers, and other parts of the world, such as Orkney or Greenland, also settled at the same time by ‘migrants of the same origin’, which both enabled and stimulated the writing of the sagas

The difference between colonisation and diaspora becomes clear when one thinks about Viking culture. There was not merely a succession of exodus, immigration, establishment of a new society in new surroundings – Norse culture in the Atlantic was characterised by continuous relations with its origins. ‘Parent culture’ and genealogical affiliation is one of the key issues in Old Norse-Icelandic saga literature and culture. At times the conservatism that lies in the term led to an unwillingness to adapt to new physical and environmental surroundings, as was the case in the Norse settlements in Greenland.

There are many possible networks of spatial meaning in Viking Age and medieval Iceland. By telling and performing stories about what happened in specific places, the Icelanders of the settlement period turned the seemingly ‘meaningless’ nature of the country they found at their first arrival into a landscape which was full of meaning, ‘filling’ the empty land with stories and memories of places.

Week 8 has the title of Language and space: spatial thinking in language; landscape and place names (light edit):

The topic of our final week proceeds seamlessly into last week’s discussions about the naming of concrete places in the landscape. Stefan Brink introduces the field of place name studies and delivers some concrete Scandinavian examples. Paul Widmer brings a more abstract spatial perspective into focus, sheding light upon different conceptualizations of spacial thinking in a language by the example of Old Norse Icelandic.

Place name studies aka toponomy are/is interesting, but the 10 minute lecture didn’t yield up much beyond dividing names into nature names and culture names (with subdivisions for settlements: hamlets, farms…nations | fields), offering up the concepts of typologies and chronologies and affirming the need for insights into cultural geography to be able to contextualise place names properly. See Linguistic patterns in the place-names of Norway and the Northern Isles as an introduction, plus the British Museum’s Discover Nordic place names map and the Viking Network on placenames. Update from serendipity corner: tying place names in with memory and mapping we have Mapping, Beirut-style: how to navigate a city without using any street names.

Danish sources: Navn.ku.dk (Names in Denmark) and Stednavne, plus Forstadmuseet’s List of local placenames and piece on the etymology of Hvidovre. Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks strays into this area – see his word-hoard, plus The landreader project, and my own Faroese glossary. Lieven Ameel has looked at toponyms as triggers for a sense of place. Latest finds: Key to English place names and female placenames analysis.

It’s a thing

See THING Sites and the THING project, a transnational World Heritage nomination, based on an expansion of Iceland’s existing World Heritage site Thingvellir. The Shetland Amenity Trust has a place names officer, wow. Assembly sites throughout areas of Scandinavian influence can be identified by their common ting, thing, ding and fing place names, eg Gulating (Norway), Tinganes (Faroe Islands), Tingwall in both Shetland and Orkney, Dingwall (Highland) and Tynwald (Isle of Man), plus Thynghowe in the Sherwood Forest, and obv, Folketinget.

Wrap-up

The peer assessment took the form of a 450-500 word essay, incorporating primary source and secondary course material, based on one of the discussion questions from the course. Quite neat, but judging from the discussion forums the hard core is pretty small.

So, what was it all about? There was a lack of a narrative thread, it felt like a random collection of pet projects hung round the broad theme of Sagas and space dressed up in academic language. Kudos for the non-natives for running the thing in English, but this can obfuscate even for a native speaker, so who knows what confusions may have arisen among non-native speakers.

Have to confess to being even more confused about who the Vikings were than before (eg did the Vikings conquer Denmark in the same way as they did Yorkshire? this article isn’t really helping) – it’s still not my period. (On which note, the local burial mounds and the sword at Avedøre are fun, but way too early for this context, obv.) Generally, Vikingery is a Scandi angle I have avoided up to now, but there are connections of interest to follow up, perhaps by revisiting our trip to the Faroes, a year ago this week.

Update: for the record, there’s an annual Norse in the north conference (@NorseintheNorth)…Neil Gaiman is big on the Norse

#edDDI: Digital Day of Ideas 2015

2016 update: #DigScholEd was liveblogged by Nicola Osborne. Keynotes from literary historian Ted Underwood on Predicting the past, a distant reading type approach to digital libraries, Lorna Hughes on Content, co-curation and innovation: digital humanities and cultural heritage collaboration, and Karen Gregory on Conceptualizing digital sociology.

Bumped/rewritten post – see below for brief mentions of #edDDI in 2014 and 2013 and other #digitalhss doings.

From the #digitalhss stable came Digital Day of Ideas 2015 (#EdDDI | TAGSExplorer – see graph) on 26 May, livetweeted, blogged and Storified by Lorna Campbell (@LornaMCampbell), with recordings of the talks to come.

Speakers and outputs:

Other #edDDIs:

#digitalhss in four keys: medicine, law, bibliography and crime, workshop on 12 November 2013, liveblogged by Nicola Osborne:

  • Digital articulations in medicine (Alison Crockford) – ah, the Surgeons’ Hall…seeks to illuminate the relationship between literature and medicine in Edinburgh through the development of a digital reader,  joining together not only the literary and medical spheres but also the rapidly expanding field of the digital and the medical humanities; interesting points on the nature of digihum and public engagement issues, see Dissecting Edinburgh for more
  • Rethinking property: copyright law and digital humanities research (Zhu Chen Wei) – the entrenched idea of copyright as an exclusive property regime is ill suited for understanding digihum research activities; how might copyright law respond to the challenges posed by digital humanities research, in particular the legality of mass digitisation of scholarly materials and the possible copyright exemption for text and data mining
  • Building and rebuilding a digital catalogue for modern Chinese Buddhism (Gregory Scott) – the Digital Catalogue of Chinese Buddhism is a collection of data on over 2300 published items with a web based, online interface for searching and filtering its content; can the methods and implications of working with a large number of itemised records, bibliographic or otherwise, be applied to other projects?; channelling Borges’ library of Babel 
  • Digitally mapping crime in Edinburgh, 1900-1939 (Louise Settle) – specifically an historical geography of prostitution in Edinburgh; used Edinburgh Map Builder, developed as part of the Visualising Urban Geographies project, which allows you to use National Library of Scotland maps, Google Maps and your own data; viz helps you spot trends and patterns you may not have noticed before;  for locations elsewhere in UK Digimap includes both contemporary and historical maps; Historypin uses historical photography to create maps, (EH4, plus come in #kierkegaard); see also the Edinburgh Atlas

See also the workshop on data mining on 19 November 2013.

Sagas and space (4-5): cosmography and cartography

Week 4 was entitled Cosmography: descriptions of the world in medieval texts:

This week’s main topic will be the cosmography of the North in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period and as such continues the discussion of pre-Christian cosmology in Week 1…The central question of all the sources is: How did people in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period conceive the North as a system of space and how did they represent this spatial system in texts, images, signs? Two famous works will be at the centre of our attention, the so called Itinerary by the Icelandic Abbot Nikulás, and the so called Carta Marina map by the Swede Olaus Magnus with its sea monsters.

Abbot Nikulás’ itinerary, aka Leiðarvísir og borgarskipan (Wikipedia), was published around 1157 and takes the form of a guidebook for pilgrims about routes from northern Europe to Rome and Jerusalem. Gosh. The wrap-up states that “many of the contributions you posted on cosmography and intertextuality were extremely good” – the number of contributions may have fallen off a cliff, but leaves a fully engaged hard core. Expanding on this, “a nice definition of intertextuality can be found in some of Mikhail Bakhtin’s and Julia Kristeva’s writings…Intertextuality means that a text uses another text (more or less overtly and explicitly) and thus speaks with the voice of the other text…the Bible is of course the main text which was and is re-used and re-writtten in the Christian tradition.”

Week 5 was entitled Cartography: mapping the North:

This week’s topic will be the cartography of the North in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period and as such continues the discussion of the textual cosmography from last week. This means that we will look at some of the same sources, although from different angles. The central question is still the same: How did people in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period conceive the North as a system of space and how did they represent this spatial system in texts, images, signs?

The videos take e a closer look at some of the more prominent medieval and early modern maps in the North, in particular Olaus Magnus’ Carta Marina (Wikipedia), made in the first half of the 16th century, ie a bit on the late side, but clearly Jürg Glauser’s specialist subject.

No headache inducing theory in weeks 4-5, hence rather less interesting to a non-Vikingophile.

As it happens the latest issue of Granta has the theme of the map is not the territory, ie “the difference between the world as we see it and the world as it actually is, beyond our faulty memories and tired understanding”, with pieces that “remind us of the human cost associated with the divergence of map and territory” in, for example, Iraq, and on the present state of Russia: “Communism…made the distinction between image and reality a political art form” (source: introduction). Of the open pieces, The archive is a splendid bit of experimental writing in the from of a visualisation which provides “a means of understanding the essential aspects of a literary text, avoiding the possible confusions, or a proliferation of diverging interpretations, to which a conventional approach could give rise”. It would be interesting to tie these ideas in with the texts and maps on offer in the MOOC.

Sagas and space (3): discovering new spaces

Week 3 was entitled Discovering new spaces: geographical and social aspects; memory and space:

This week’s topic will be the social space and the historic landscape in which the Icelandic saga literature is set. Another very interesting facet of space we will hear of is its connection with memory.

Pretty heavy going, with two theoretical dollops, starting with a lecture on the space of literature by Torfi H Tulinius:

  • title borrowed  from French literary theorist and essayist, Maurice Blanchot, who wrote The literary space (1955) – literature is a locus where you encounter and transcend the limits of meaning and understanding; is this a space in the usual sense of the word?
  • Old Norse-Icelandic literature is very much concerned with space (ie how the country was settled; horizontal) and time (ie history; vertical) – these axes intersected in Iceland in the 12th and 13th centuries
  • all space is mental – we do not have immediate access to it, so we have to represent it, in our consciousness and in our cultural artifacts, such as literature
  • there is also space which we neither represent nor experience, but which is nevertheless part of our existence; for example the space of literature which exists in the sagas
  • some of the texts display evidence of fluidity (fluid space, liminal space, spaces of uncertainty) – the nature of the world changes as the character goes from one place to another; also from one time to another; transcending traditional categories, literature as a special place where the limits of language are tested
  • the sagas were a public space, testing the meanings and representations of society, particularly in the liminal times around the settlement of Iceland and conversion to Christianity
  • the space of literature as an alternate space, where things that didn’t happen can happen and where meanings and ideas can be tested

Next, space and memory by Pernilla Hermann (Aarhus):

Memory and space are connected in a variety of ways. Memory is best constructed on the basis of place – space can preserve memory, it can structure memory, and it can trigger memories. Two traditions bring together space and memory:

  • collective and cultural memory – memory places, places that construct and preserve memories; here the focus is on collective identity; places are something external – social groups, cultural symbols, collectively shared, external
  • the art of memory – a rhetorical tradition, where places are mnemonic devices or mnemonic tools; places are constructed in the mind of individuals and are internal. – rhetorical tradition, mnemo-technical device, individually constructed, internal
  • ancient authors distinguished between  natural memory and artificial memory, with artificial memory based on a cultivation of natural memory and two dominant principles:
    • mnemonic places – constructed in the mind of the one who trains his memory; very often architectonic structures such as a theatre or palace
    • mnemonic images – constructions of things that is supposed to be remembered, images of these things to be remembered are placed in various locations in the architectonic structure
  • when you have to recollect your memories you enter the space and go to the various images that you have to remember
  • artificial memory influenced art and literature – the sagas came into being in a transitional culture between orality and writing, and we can expect the people in this culture to have explored and used a rich variety of mnemonic aids
  • how did memory function among the Nordic writers of the 12th and 13th centuries? does Old Norse literature represent artificial memory? is Old Norse literature to some extent structured from mental spaces?

So bring on Emily Lethbridge’s Icelandic Saga Map and accompanying blog, The saga-steads of Iceland: a 21st century pilgrimage. From Emily’s  vid:

  • maps and narratives are age old explanatory systems or frameworks which help us to understand the world and our place in it
  • all stories are maps of a kind, and maps in turn can tell stories; Robert Tally (Spatiality, 2013; Literary cartographies, 2014) : to draw a map is to tell a story
  • from a literary critical perspective mapping as an approach is a means of textural reduction and abstraction, prompting or helping us to ask different questions
  • we organise information on maps in order to see our knowledge in a new way; maps suggest explanations; and while explanations reassure us, they also inspire us to ask more questions and consider more possibilities (Peter Turchi, Maps of the imagination: the writer as cartographer)
  • digital maps can be used to present literary worlds as spaces through which characters move and the places and events in a narrative are set, and also to present the historical worlds in which bodies of literature were produced and transmitted; the medieval Icelandic sagas are fundamentally rooted in the Icelandic landscapes, and many places in them can be identified around the country today
  • mapping the sagas works on two levels; at the narrative level and at the level of presenting and visualising their transmission in space and time
  • at the narrative level, a map displaying places named in any single saga gives all kinds of insights into the literary functions or significance of different kinds of places and spaces inside the landscapes and enhances our understanding of the ‘narrative logistics’, such as the relative distances between places or the progress of journeys made by characters
  • the map highlights the role of the landscape in the transmission of the sagas over time and underlines some of the methodological issues in this kind of literary cartography; hyperlinking places named in the in the sagas to points on the map suggests that the relationship of saga text to modern day landscape is simple, but the correlation between the identification of specific places in the Icelandic landscapes today with those named in the sagas is often far from straightforward
  • landscapes have changed as a result of natural processes, not least volcanic eruptions and the various ensuing consequences of this, and also on account of human intervention of different types; farms have been abandoned, resettled, and place names have been lost or moved around; sometimes the political, ideological, or economic stakes are high with regard to identifying a certain place in the modern day Icelandic landscape as a place in a saga
  • the map is therefore also a resource that tries to highlight these mismatches, ambiguities, or disputes over the identification of saga sites
  • the process of developing the saga map brought into focus the extents to which places in the sagas exemplify what Edward Soja
    calls real and imagined places (Thirdspace, 1996), because of the way that the sagas are at once both history and fiction, ie fictionalized or literary renderings of historical events that are said to have taken place in identifiable local locations
  • one key preoccupation of past scholars investigating the topography of the sagas has been the extent to which local landscapes have been accurately or inaccurately represented by saga authors, but if one accepts that the saga sites around Iceland are both real and imagined places, real and imagined simultaneously, one can begin to better understand the role of the landscape in the transmission of the sagas, and to examine how the sagas have been transmitted via or through the landscapes, as well as being copied in manuscripts
  • this gives us insights into the broader sociocultural functions that the sagas have filled over time; many place names around the country reference the sagas or saga characters but aren’t mentioned specifically in the  texts; these places play a crucial part in the reception of the sagas, and are a part of what might be described as the sagas’ outdoor mode of transmission rather than their indoor mode of transmission, acting as mnemonic triggers for episodes in the sagas; while one was, say, moving through the landscapes, details from the sagas would be brought to mind
  • until recent times this spatial way of reading the sagas was just as important as the reading of the sagas from manuscripts in an indoor domestic setting; the landscape itself is, in fact, just another kind of saga manuscript, and is, in fact, a palimpsest with layers of saga memory and narrative detail built up over and across it over time
  • the possibilities that the Icelandic landscapes have offered over time for reading and rewriting the sagas is one of the reasons for their enduring popularity over time in Iceland, and arguably also one of the most remarkable characteristics as a body of internationally acclaimed literature

New in the glossary: in Icelandic the term ‘saga’ generally means a story told in prose. As a linguistic term it also refers to a large collection of stories from the Icelandic and partially Norwegian Middle Ages, ie ‘saga literature’. The sagas are the most extensive of the three main categories of Old Icelandic literature. The handwritten tradition starts in the 12th century, but most manuscripts date from the late 13th, 14th and 15th centuries.

From the wrap-up:

Saga sites in the concrete Icelandic landscape help to support and create memory. This space related memory can be individual, collective and/or cultural, so space and time are part of different levels. Landscape as described and memorized in the sagas sometimes belongs to different layers of time which becomes clear when the narrator of a saga comments that a certain spot is called this and this today, but it was called differently in those times, or that this place is not inhabited any longer today; older layers of the history of a region may thus become visible and one might call such phenomena palimpsests.

LitLong Edinburgh: exploring the literary city

Edinburgh has just celebrated its 10th anniversary as UNESCO city of literature (Facebook | Twitter). The original city of literature, here’s Edinburgh’s literary story and details of tours and trails (guided | self guided | virtual – a bit lacking in the maps department, mind). Edinburgh is also home to the Scottish Poetry Library (Facebook | Twitter), the world’s first purpose built institution of its kind, it says here, and the Scottish Storytelling Centre (Facebook | Twitter), ditto, adjacent to John Knox House. Not forgetting the Book Festival (Facebook | Twitter), the “largest festival of its kind in the world“. 

The UK has one other city of literature, Norwich (see City of stories), and further literary cities include Dublin (great writers museum), and, pleasingly, Dunedin (about). Update: Nottingham has a bid in! If But I know this city! (tweets | David Belbin | report) is anything to go by, it should be successful. And there’s even Literary Dundee (@literarydundee).

I suspect not entirely coincidentally, 30 March saw the launch of LitLong (@litlong), the latest output from the AHRC funded Palimpsest project (@LitPalimpsest) at the University of Edinburgh (see Nicola Osborne’s liveblog and #litlonglaunch, esp @sixfootdestiny). An “interactive resource of Edinburgh literature” currently based around a website with an app to come launched for iOS, LitLong grew out of the prototype Palimpsest app developed three years ago, taking a multidisciplinary team 15 months to build – geolocating the literature around a city is no trivial matter! See about LitLong for some of the issues.

550 works set in Edinburgh have been mined for placenames from the Edinburgh Gazetteer, with snippets selected for “interestingness” and added to the database, resulting in more than 47,000 mentions of over 1,600 different places. The data can be searched by keyword, location or author, opening up lots of possibilities, such as why is Irvine Welsh’s Embra further north than Walter Scott’s Edinburgh? Do memoir writers focus on different areas than crime writers? See too Mapping the Canongate.

Part of the point of Palimpsest is to allow us to explore and compare the cityscapes of individual writers, as well as the way in which literary works cultivate the personality of the city as a whole.

On the down side, while there is a handful of contemporary writers in the mix, the majority of the content necessarily comes from copyright free material available in a digitised corpus, ie old stuff they made you read at school. Plus search results can be rather overwhelming (339 hits for the Grassmarket) – filters for genre, time period, might be an idea. However the data is to be made available enabling interested parties to play around as they wish, with open source code and data resources on GitHub.

I’ve had a look at the data around Muriel Spark, who would surely be delighted to be considered contemporary. The prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) has a section set in Cramond, near where I grew up. Drilling down using the location visualiser quickly brings us to:

“I shouldn’t have thought there was much to explore at Cramond,” said Mr. Lloyd, smiling at her with his golden forelock falling into his eye.

Searching the database brings up three pages of Cramond results to explore, including 17 Brodie snippets. Note that here you can filter by decade or source.

A search for Cammo, even closer to home, brought up a quote from Irvine Welsh’s Skagboys, although the map shown was different depending on which tool I used:

Edinburgh is a city of trees and woods; from the magnificence of the natural woodlands at Corstorphine Hill or Cammo, to the huge variety of splendid specimens in our parks and streets, Alexander argued, a pleasing flourish to his rhetoric. — Trees and woodlands have an inherent biodiversity value, whilst providing opportunities for recreation and environmental education.

location visualiser map - quill not in park

location visualiser map – quill in back gardens rather than the “natural woodlands” #picky

database search map - not Cammo!

database search map – not Cammo!

At the other end of the scale a search for ‘Bobby’ brings up 72 snippets from Eleanor Atkinson’s book, that’s a lot to handle…TBH I don’t really want them, I want a nice map of locations mentioned in the book, or at least a list, to create my own Greyfriars Bobby trail. At the moment it’s not possible to switch between the text and the map from the location visualiser, although you can do this snippet by snippet from the database search.

As things stand LitLong feels like an academic project rather than a user friendly tool – some use cases might be an idea.Hopefully the same approach will be applied to other cities in due course.

Telling stories with maps: literary geographies

Telling stories with maps: the geoweb, qualitative GIS and narrative mapping (programme) was a seminar (report | another one) held on 30 April as part of Hestia2, a project centred round spatial reading and visualising Herodotus’ Histories (see posts). Sessions in the morning covered narrative mapping while the afternoon focused on literary analysis and networks.

Sessions of particular note:

During the lunch break participants tried out the MapLocal app (Android only), which allows users to take photos and record audio commentaries which are geolocated and uploaded to a shared map. Echoes of the Gdn’s Google  Street View Sleuth?

Time to revisit Kierkegaard in maps, although other personally related themes might prove more doable.

A recurrent theme [was] the conceptual and technical challenges associated with efforts to shift the focus away from traditional ‘Cartesian’ cartographic methods – with their focus on surfaces, images and topographies – onto the topological and networked representations contained in narrative depictions of space.

What is lost in translation from narrative to map or map to narrative form?

Great livetweeting from @muziejus:

A further event on 6 June explored digital pedagogy.

Some linkage:

Some notes:

  • literary cartography
    • an approach using a symbolic language
    • spatial elements of texts are translated into cartographic symbols
    • allows new ways in exploring and analysing the geography of literature
    • tools of interpretation – show something which hasn’t been seen before
    • not just supporting the text
  • the space of fiction – categories
    • settings – where the action takes place (house, village)
    • zones of action – several settings combined (city, region)
    • projected spaces
      • characters are not present but are thinking of, remembering, longing for or imagining a specific place
    • markers – places which are mentioned; indicate the geographical range and horizon of a fictional space
    • paths/routes – along which characters move; connections between waypoints (settings, projected spaces)
  • database support
    • data model
      • general text information, including bibliography and assigned model region
      • about the author
      • the temporal structure of the story line
      • spatial objects
    • maps created automatically from database
  • what elements of the literary space can be mapped
    • the city in literature
    • interactions/tensions between centre and periphery
    • travelling
    • crossing borders
    • imaginary places
    • literary tourism
  • what elements are unmappable
  • different representations for epochs, genres?
  • spatial models
    • maps in literature, eg Treasure Island
    • imaginary settings
    • mapping of a single text
    • mapping of groups of texts
      • where and when do cities appear on the literary map of Europe?
      • how international is the space?
    • placing literature on a map
      • simplistic
      • no theoretical foundation
    • issues and uncertainties
      • the artistic freedom of the author
      • semantic and linguistic variation in describing places and spaces
      • vague geographical concepts
      • reading variations by different readers
      • visualisation need to make some things clearer than they actually are
      • texts do not always provide distinct or correct information
      • different interpreters can provide different viewpoints – subjective
      • mark data as direct/indirect reference
      • detail may not be provided of a journey, but a straight line gives the wrong impression
  • maps as an intermediate results, sources of inspiration, generators of ideas for future research
    • makes aspects visible which were invisible before
    • creates knowledge about places, their historical layers, meanings, functions and symbolic values