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Mapping Petersburg

Mapping Petersburg flyerOver the last few months I have been working with John Levin on the pilot for a digital Russian literature project, and last week we launched the website, Mapping Petersburg: Experiments in Literary Cartography. The project aims to explore the role of Petersburg’s topography in shaping the literature for which the city is so famous, creating maps to visualize spatial relationships and dynamics underlying the texts. The pilot focuses on Crime and Punishment (and this was the subject of our paper at BASEES on Saturday), but this is a work in progress, and more maps, relating to different Petersburg texts, will appear in due course, alongside other interactive features to allow exploration of the city’s geography and history.

I think the first Petersburg text I ever read was Gogol’s Nose – it’s certainly the one that first stayed in my mind but my interest in the literary image of the city really developed through my work on Dostoevsky – hence the decision to use one of the most significant works he added to the genre as the starting point. I’ve also spent a good deal of time on visits to Russia wandering round Petersburg, absorbing its unusual atmosphere and history, and recollecting all the evocations of the city I’ve read, from Pushkin to Bitov. It’s a powerful and fascinating place that demands attention.

The city and its culture have, for that reason, already been the subject of a massive body of critical works, and indeed the Petersburg text itself has a strong self-reflexive tendency that is constantly returning to the question: what constitutes the city and its literature? Vissarion Belinsky’s essays in Nikolai Nekrasov’s seminal 1845 collection The Physiology of Petersburg perhaps initiated this preoccupation, but it has been a central component of Petersburg literature ever since.

Most of the existing critical works on Petersburg, in line with most treatments of literary space per se, address the city in symbolic and thematic terms, while the idea of cultural mapping, as exemplified by Julie Buckler’s Mapping St Petersburg: Imperial Text and Cityshape (Princeton University Press, 2005) is an entirely metaphorical conception of a literature’s inscription onto its landscape. The symbolic dimension is important – the role of the founding myth is crucial to understanding the Petersburg text – but such approaches either ignore space altogether, or generalize it as a semiotic function, without examining the specific spatial dimensions of a text or their relation to the real city. There is, in other words, space for a new approach.

Maps have frequently been used to illustrate texts, but as Franco Moretti contends in Atlas of the European Novel, 1800-1900 (London: Verso, 19998), rather than acting as an end point, maps should be seen as a starting point. In particular, their capacity to visualize the spatial dimensions of a text means they have the potential to be powerful analytic tools. For this reason, we are creating maps not as decorative objects, but as objects of study, in order to interrogate the city and its texts. In addition to producing maps as part of a process of exploration of the relationship between the real and the imagined city, and the representation of the city’s geography in literature, we are addressing broader questions of what it means to map a text, and how it can be mapped. The project is in its infancy, but we are already thinking about future development.

My collaborator, John Levin, is in charge of the technical side of things, and he has worked tirelessly to produce the maps and develop the website. He will be writing about his work on Mapping Petersburg at Anterotesis – in fact his first thoughts are here – and I will use this blog to discuss aspects of the project; my next post will examine the processes I have gone through during the pilot, and address the vexed question of turning literature into data.

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  1. Richard Armstrong

     /  April 23, 2011

    I would have thought that one of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s early novellas, or one of Nikolai Gogol’s short stories for that matter, would have been easier for the first attempt, but this is really wonderful work.

    For those who are unfamiliar with St Petersburg’s geography (like myself), this is a lovely tool that gives a visual representation of the significance of some of the character’s actions (the walks to Krestovskii Island in part one and six, for example, or Raskolnikov’s ‘claustrophobia’ in the middle sections of the novel), and I imagine it could – if you have not already – be used as a tool for teaching the novel too.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Thanks Richard. You’re certainly right that it would have been easier to start with smaller works, and there were times when I regretted taking on something so challenging at this stage of the project. The idea, though, was to use the pilot to focus our minds on what mapping means and what it can achieve, to help us understand the problems (of both the technology and the humanistic content) as well as the potential. From that point of view, a complex work seemed better suited to help us advance the project. But Gogol, at least, should be appearing reasonably soon…

  1. Anterotesis » Mapping Petersburg

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