(Re)Mapping Spatial History: An Overview of the Bodies and Structures Platform

Bodies and Structures, a Scalar-based teaching and research platform mainly focused on Japanese spatial histories and their connections to other regions, launched in 2019. This year, the project launched its greatly expanded 2.0 edition with generous support from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). As Bodies and Structures begins to approach its final 3.0 installment, there is no better time to showcase what I believe to be one of the most impressive digital resources focused on East and Southeast Asia today. In order to highlight a few of the major successes and future possibilities of this project, I corresponded with Bodies and Structures co-directors David Ambaras, Professor of History at North Carolina State University, and Kate McDonald, Associate Professor of History at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Bodies and Structures is, at its core, a teaching and learning tool. Users are invited to interpret East and Southeast Asian history as a spatial construct, defined through places, movements, geographies, environments, materialities, and other aspects as they intersect with several other histories in the same region. Rather than positing spatial history as a research output, however, the platform takes spatial history as an acute methodology that can generate previously unseen historical links between and across sub-regions. The co-directors themselves describe the project as an analytical framework through which interpretations shape and reshape spatial histories. This, I believe, is precisely what distinguishes Bodies and Structures from other standalone digital research tools focused on East and Southeast Asia (and Japan, more specifically, as the platform does). Bodies and Structures does not simply display information, but rather invites an exploratory, user-driven interactivity. This interactivity enhances teaching and learning experiences and challenges users to think through spatial relationships on terms conceived by users in the moment. From my experience, maneuvering through and between the modules, grid visualizations, and tactile mapping tools only reinforces the feeling of omnidirectional and interconnected spatial histories, and it is rare to see concept and content so intimately enjoined in a digital project like this, especially at this scale.

By framing this project as an open, analytical framework rather than as an end-product of a self-styled analysis, the co-directors engage and challenge some of the geographical divisions that comprise area studies, but also the formation of discrete disciplines that inform the field and those beyond it:

From a cross-area, interdisciplinary, and multi-thematic analytical perspective, the assumptions that we are challenging are less specific to Japanese Studies or East Asian Studies than they are to the nineteenth-century geographic thought and historiographical sensibilities that structure our disciplinary and scholarly conversations. Outside of a small workshop environment, it is very unusual for, say, a historian of postwar Vietnamese history of science and medicine to engage in an extended discussion with a historian of Qing-era opium trade and postwar Japanese photography. Bodies and Structures not only makes these conversations possible – it insists that these conversations are necessary in order to understand how spatial structures and bodily encounters shape the experience and writing of (East Asian) history.

This tag map shows dozens of pages tagged by “Territorial Rationality,” “Network Rationality,” and both of those tags. Note the regional and disciplinary variability across the page titles.
Likewise, note the shared space among all pages tagged by “Migrant,” “Invader,” or “Market Rationality” in this partial grid visualization. As a user, one might ask: What juxtapositions and questions might this produce? What does the reach of these tags across these three conceptual categories tell us about regional economic markets and their occupants?

Technical Challenges and Successes

This imperative to regional, historical, disciplinary, and methodological openness extends to the technical infrastructure that supports Bodies and Structures. The co-directors selected Scalar for its ability to support interconnected pages through functional relationships (e.g. linear pathways, conceptual tagging, annotation) and for its open-source format. Despite Scalar’s capabilities, though, the team encountered some challenges, such as the inability to map multiple pins onto a single geo-spatial location, or the inability for users to create their own maps. As the co-directors describe, however, and as is clear in the 2.0 installment, ease of use and user access have been key motivators for the project’s development:

For the 1.0 installment, we had to slightly modify each set of latitude-longitude coordinates for all of the pages that related to, say, Tokyo, so that each would be clickable as pins on the Google map. The other challenge we had was that there was really no way for users to create their own maps of Bodies and Structures. So, while we talked big talk in the Overview Essay about “liberating the map,” our deep map of modern East Asian history was very much shackled to the structure that we developed with our module builders and built into the site.

For 2.0, then, we worked with Scalar developers Erik C. Loyer and Craig Dietrich to secure an NEH Digital Humanities Advancement Grant. The grant funded several technical upgrades to the Scalar platform to make it even more amenable to our kind of deep mapping project. The biggest one is the new Lenses feature. Lenses allows readers to create their own slices of Bodies and Structures. Now it is possible for users to map the site in their own way. Our hope is that readers will continue the conversation that Bodies and Structures started by sharing their Lenses with us.

In the two above examples of the new Lenses tool, users can visualize different conceptions of “native” across the space of modern East Asia and think about how these diversely scaled conceptions might relate across place and time.

Access and Usability

This user-driven functionality is critical for maintaining an open accessibility in a platform like Bodies and Structures. Users—who may hail from any number of regional, disciplinary, educational, or linguistic backgrounds—enjoy genuine control over the content hosted on the platform, and this is part and parcel of dissolving boundaries in several registers: those that divide area studies regions and disciplines; those that separate specialist and non-specialist; and those that cordon off East and Southeast Asian histories from broader continental or global histories. In other words, inviting users to take the steering wheel, arrive to their own conclusions, and share those conclusions with the directors and the greater user community is part of the overall liberatory experience encouraged by Bodies and Structures; users are utterly unbound by the linear and siloed historical views that are often privileged by static, representational digital research projects.

While learning from individual users through the new Lenses function is essential to much of this mission, Bodies and Structures also serves as a model for more formalized institutional collaboration at a greater scale. For me, a librarian and researcher concerned with the ephemerality of digital resources and the inclusion of non-specialist voices, this imperative to collaborate across platforms, institutions, and languages will ensure that Bodies and Structures grows alongside the next several generations of diverse scholars and their work:

Doing “multivocal” scholarship means, first and foremost, making Bodies and Structures available to as many voices as possible. Right now, readers can start an account with hypothes.is, and use that to comment on the site’s pages. These comments, if made public, would be visible to other users with hypothes.is accounts. Going forward, we’d like to bring these conversations into the structure of the site more formally. Another vision we have for the future is to invite commentary from scholars in the field, including those who publish primarily in East and Southeast Asian languages, so that we can build an ongoing, multi-institutional conversation into each module. Sayaka Chatani’s Grassroots Operations of the Japanese Empire project has done this really well. We also hope to be able to invite commentary from individuals who experienced the historical moments or the afterlives of the moments that our module builders discuss. The Okinawa Memories Initiative, for example, has done exceptional work bringing Okinawan communities into the process of producing knowledge about Okinawa, and we’d like to develop ways to build on their model.

Looking Forward

Space, in a physical sense, imparts a feeling of comfort when we are most familiar with our surroundings. I believe the same can be said for digital research spaces; for those of us who frequent them, digital databases, archives, repositories, and other platforms often feel familiar because they are arranged similarly and therefore invite relatively similar styles of engagement. This is not inherently bad, but it does lull us into a common mode of linear interpretation and understanding. I find Bodies and Structures to be a radical departure from this model, and while some first encounters with this platform may feel jarring, this is precisely the point; we are meant to probe through historical spaces without a sense of familiarity and, hopefully, arrive at new and surprising conclusions:

“What, specifically, do you, Dear Reader, get out of Bodies and Structures?” That, we think, is a question for each individual user to ask themselves. Much of what Bodies and Structures does is disorient users from the typical way we gather information and process knowledge. One key aspect of this is getting users to ask, “Where am I?” as they explore the site. The answer might involve thinking in terms of modules. But it might also involve orienting to concepts of place, or relationships between pages. Our hope is that this disorientation is productive. We hope it encourages readers to re-orient their knowledge toward a different, more conceptual conversation, which will then spark new research about the central role of spatiality within area-, discipline-, or chronologically-specific communities.

Keep an eye on this outlet for future updates on the 3.0 installment of the Bodies and Structures project, which will be announced in Summer 2022. As should be clear by now, the co-directors are very interested in direct feedback about the user experience. If you are a user of Bodies and Structures and have suggestions for improvements or future innovations, please email the co-directors at bodiesandstructures@gmail.com or reach them on Twitter at @bodiesandstruct.

Header Image: Portion of a force-driven connections visualization of all site-wide content, created by the writer.

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