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Mapping It Out
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Mapping It Out
Abstract Machine: Humanities GIS
Charles B. Travis
Esri Press
152 Pages; Print, $52.99

Charles B. Travis’s Abstract Machine: Humanities GIS takes its place among a number of recent book-length studies or themed collections that bring focus to the potential for Geographical Information Systems (or GIS) as a productive tool for geocritical work in the humanities. Indiana University Press’s “Spatial Humanities” series has, since 2010, led the charge by publishing (so far) eight books that concentrate on the application of GIS to humanities disciplines such as history, film studies, and literary studies. Literary studies is, in particular, a key emerging site for this kind of “spatial humanities” or “digital geohumanities”-type research, as evidenced by the publication of a cluster of books over the past two years, including Cooper et al.’s 2016 edited collection, Literary Mapping in the Digital Age; Stadler et al.’s 2016 Imagined Landscapes: Geovisualizing Australian Spatial Narratives (a book I co-authored); and Travis’s Abstract Machine, published in 2015. Although Abstract Machine isn’t ostensibly focused on literary studies—subtitled, as it is, “Humanities GIS”—the case studies around which the book is shaped are, in keeping with Travis’s research background in literary geographies of Ireland, predominantly literary or literary-historical, and all centre on Irish landscapes, histories, and writers.

Travis’s generously and attractively illustrated book is notable in that it employs a suite of tools from ArcGIS, the leading commercial GIS platform, which was first released by developer Esri in 1999. Abstract Machine is also published by Esri’s publishing arm, Esri Press, which usually publishes training manuals, reference texts, and case studies (on its website, Abstract Machine is categorized, interestingly enough, as “Non-Technical”)—but more on this later. Abstract Machine is therefore, for better or for worse, wedded to ArcGIS, but much of it is for better. Literary scholars who have gravitated in recent years towards digital mapping have tended to favor more accessible (in terms of cost and skill) “neogeographical” digital mapping tools such as Google Maps, Open Street Map, and CartoDB over the industry standard (and significantly more expensive) ArcGIS. Given the general underrepresentation of ArcGIS in digital literary geography research, Travis’s book is valuable in that it provides a case-study based approach to using the platform’s suite of applications—including ArcMap, the ArcScene, and ArcCatalog—for literary-geographical work.

The book’s first two chapters focus on defining GIS and its relation to the digital humanities and providing an introduction to the “spatial turn” and “post-structuralist perspectives” on mapping. In these opening chapters, Travis notes the influence of Bertrand Westphal’s geocritical approach on the development of humanities GIS as an area of research, as well as David Bodenhamer’s “deepmapping” approach, which is closely associated with the “spatial humanities” concept and enterprise. The book’s first case study (its only non-literary one) is presented in chapter three and employs ArcGIS’s 3D visualizer, ArcScene, to dynamically geovisualise a historical event: specifically, the seventeenth-century conquest and mapping of Ireland. Although Travis is restricted by the confines of print—the interactive 3D visualizations created in ArcScene must be rendered into non-interactive 2D illustrations—he successfully conveys the ways in which the creation of these visualisations enables the combination of “visual insights with a capability to probe, drill down, filter, and manipulate the digital display to answer the ‘why’ as well as ‘what’ questions, in addition to the most fundamental question—where?”

The remaining four case studies all focus on literary texts and/or the lives and landscapes of literary authors, and are collected as the book’s large second section devoted to “writers, texts, and mapping.” Three of the four literary case studies also bring a particular poststructuralist theory to bear on the process and products of literary geovisualization. In chapter four, “Mapping Kavanagh: GIS and the poetic eye,” Travis draws on Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the chronotope in his approach to mapping and visualizing Irish farmer-poet Patrick Kavanagh’s “lifepaths” in, between, and across the rural and urban landscapes of County Monaghan and Dublin...