How Should Historians Talk about Spatial Agency?

in Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques
Author: Paul Stock1
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Abstract

In recent years, it has become commonplace to argue that space is an important topic in the humanities and social sciences. But what does space do? Can we speak of space as having agency? Historians’ responses to these questions are strikingly varied. Some propose an almost deterministic role for spatial characteristics, while others deny that space can have any causal function at all. This article seeks to navigate a path between these unsatisfactory extremes. It uses insights from material culture studies and actor-network theory to discuss ways of re-framing agency as an assemblage of human and non-human affects. Agency can thus be defined not in terms of first causes and definitive outcomes, but instead as a coincidence of occurrences. This allows historians to speak of “spatial agency” as the emplacement of affective elements, the gathering of agencies at a particular site and moment.

Contributor Notes

Paul Stock is Associate Professor of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His books include Europe and the British Geographical Imagination, 1760–1830 (Oxford University Press, 2019) and The Uses of Space in Early Modern History (editor, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). Email: p.stock@lse.ac.uk