The City Made of Words: Text mining the spaces of subaltern agency in Britain, 1848-1919
[abstract for a talk to be delivered at the University of Virginia Scholars' Lab, Thursday Sep. 23]
Can digital methods resolve major debates in the historiography of political agency? In recent decades, historical scholarship in British politics has identified an era of expert rule at the cost of seemingly losing the thread of successful movements from below after 1815. The talk will outline the failures of the linguistic turn and the subsequent return of British social history back to the state. An emerging consensus now describes an era of modern expert rule characterized by the state's presence in every domain of everyday life, including infrastructure, public health, crime, poverty, and housing. Historians in this tradition (I have been one myself) routinely describe Britain 1848 as a nation where the subaltern features chiefly as the subject of surveillance, management, and repression. Much more rarely to these stories successfully describe subalterns after 1848 as political actors in their own right. Political historians are thus challenged by question first raised by Karl Polanyi, Michel Foucault, and Jurgen Habermas. Is the hegemonic power of the state in the modern world complete? Where can one find evidence of structural or continuous resistance?
Successfully identifying agency from below demands a redefinition of political agency and new methodologies for sorting the masses of texts opened up for mining by the digital era. The rest of the talk will therefore excavate methodologies from late nineteenth-century philosophers of language like Ernst Cassirer, mid-century geographers like Peter Gould, scholars of mobile culture like E. J. Hobsbawm, and anarchist writers like Colin Ward. These methods, I shall argue, foreground the potential of language mining for identifying spaces of emergent publics where agency from below has been expressed over the long duree.
Applied to digital texts, landscape methods can enhance the depth and breadth of research on alternative agency. A program for digital research is presented, together with a database on the heterotopias of late nineteenth-century London, designed to highlight the spatiality of coexisting political movements already identified in the secondary literature: the settlement houses, landscape of state surveillance, the land reform movement, theosophists, slumming, sexual and ethnic subcultures, bohemia, and hobohemia. Preliminary maps of places named in the database will be presented in conjunction with a discussion of how such a method might address larger historiographical concerns.