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Review: Bodies and Structures

A review of Bodies and Structures, a collaborative digital history project constructing the spatial histories of the Japanese Empire, directed by Kate McDonald and David Ambaras

Published onOct 05, 2020
Review: Bodies and Structures

Bodies and Structures: Deep-mapping Modern East Asian History

Project Directors
Kate McDonald, University of California, Santa Barbara

David Ambaras, North Carolina State University

Project URL

Project Reviewer
Paula Curtis, Yale University

Project Overview

Kate McDonald and David Ambaras

Bodies and Structures is a collaborative platform for researching and teaching spatial histories of modern East Asia and the larger worlds of which it is a part.

The site's basic building blocks are individually-authored modules. Each module is based on primary-source research, contains multimedia content, and includes translations of key primary source documents. Modules consist of pages with unique URLs and customized, searchable metadata. Pages exist in multiple relationships with other pages, both within and across modules: as parts of linear pathways or via hyperlinks, conceptual tags, or shared metadata. Linking these modules are conceptual maps that visualize the relationships among the site’s pages: a force-directed conceptual tag map; a complete map of the site as a grid, which allows users to create their own pathways between pages; and a geotagged Google map. The result is a media-rich environment that can be read linearly or nonlinearly, and explored conceptually or geographically.

Launched in January 2019, version 1.0 focuses on modern Japan and its empire in the early twentieth century. Version 2.0, currently under development, will incorporate new modules on Japan, China, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Our emphasis on multivocality reflects the fundamental interventions of spatial humanistic scholarship, while the multiple ways of navigating the site highlight our commitment to treat "mapping" as processes of wayfinding not restricted to cartographic representation.

The primary audience for Bodies and Structures includes researchers, teachers, and students of modern East Asian history and spatial history and humanities. Visitors can use the site for its multimedia scholarly essays and primary sources and for generating questions about the multiple topologies of historical experience. The site also includes guides for classroom use. Bodies and Structures is open access, with the bulk of the content licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Bodies and Structures is built using the open-source Scalar platform, which is created and maintained by the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture (ANVC), and is hosted on a local instance at North Carolina State University. Development is currently supported by an NEH Digital Humanities Advancement Grant (Level II). We are working closely with the ANVC team, including Erik Loyer, Craig Dietrich, and Curtis Fletcher, to build a new suite of analytical tools for Scalar that will enhance user experience and facilitate new types of participatory knowledge production. For version 2.0, we have assembled an advisory board composed of scholars with expertise in various fields of East Asian, global, and transnational history; digital and spatial history; and management of open-access visual archives, open-source journals and archives, and edited anthologies. The project directors and collaborators also have given presentations at national and international conferences as well as invited presentations at major universities. We have been featured in the #AsiaNow blog of the Association for Asian Studies and in the new online journal PLATFORM.

Project Review

Paula R. Curtis

Bodies and Structures is an ongoing, collaborative digital history project, spearheaded by Kate McDonald and David Ambaras, that constructs dynamic and multiplicitous spatial histories of the Japanese Empire. Built in the open-source web platform Scalar, this project embraces deep-mapping to engage with “space” and “place” through “maps”—anything that provides direction or orientation. Bodies and Structures features the most current scholarship on modern Japan and East Asia using a web publishing tool that both embraces and is liberated from conventional representations of geographic historical mapping, advocating instead for the plurality of historical experience as constituent of its own topography.

The site presents independent but interconnected modules. Modules are individually authored by East Asia specialists and focus on historical subjects that, using in-depth analyses of primary and secondary sources, embrace the project’s core concepts of space and place. Modules range from subjects as diverse as globally-circulated goods in early 20th century Japanese drugstores to imagined geographies of identity in colonial Taiwan. They are but one method of engaging content; “space” and “place” are deployed on a conceptual level in the structuring of user experience. In addition to the modules, readers can explore the materials through alternative forms that embody the theoretical and analytical aims of the project. They are able to begin their journey through the site instead with a tag map of core themes (“Place,” “Boundaries,” “Flows,” “Built Environments,” and more), a grid visualization of the pages, or a geotagged map.

In this spirit, the authors’ choice of platform is uniquely suited to their goals. Scalar is designed to disrupt typical hierarchies of users’ content experience by treating all forms of media (text, image, video, tags, etc.) as interlocking “pages” with their own metadata. In effect, all content is created equal. As a result, the platform encourages non-linear movement through the site, echoing Bodies and Structures’ emphasis on embracing the creativity inherent in innovative research. It encourages users to either enjoy the modules in the order presented or to “get lost” in free exploration of the conceptual interconnections carefully designed by project leaders. 

The at times bewildering complexity of the content of Bodies and Structures can be a hindrance for non-specialist or novice users, but it is also the point of the project—that historical actors experienced space and place in ways that do not always read as straight-forward, as a typical textbook or monograph might lead us to believe. It suggests that we should consider what diving deeply into these fragments and our own travels through these moments can tell us.

To help orient the reader, the authors provide an extensive introductory essay on the theoretical frameworks and questions that guide the project. The essay also instructs readers how to use the site, including suggestions specific to instructors, students, and researchers. Bodies and Structures also encourages users to interact with the content by integrating, a digital annotation tool, though its inclusion assumes a user’s pre-existing knowledge of how to use the annotation tool.

Bodies and Structures was supported by an NEH Digital Humanities Advancement Grant, and the team is currently developing new content, expanding its leadership, and bringing on more editorial and digital managers. In future iterations, the authors might consider taking full advantage of Scalar's content-equalizing capabilities to assign tags and geolocation information not only to text pages but also to the visual content that complements each essay. This would more readily highlight how the visual and material culture they showcase also manifests real and imagined forms of space and place. Bodies and Structures is an information-rich project that places the broader history of modern East Asian interactions into critical, theoretical, and historiographic perspectives while centering “space” and “place” using compelling source analysis and Scalar’s digital infrastructure.

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