All posts by jwbaker

James Baker is Director of Digital Humanities at the University of Southampton. James is a Software Sustainability Institute Fellow, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and holds degrees from the University of Southampton and latterly the University of Kent, where in 2010 he completed his doctoral research on the late-Georgian artist-engraver Isaac Cruikshank. James works at the intersection of history, cultural heritage, and digital technologies. He is currently working on a history of knowledge organisation in twentieth century Britain. In 2021, I begin a major new Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project 'Beyond Notability: Re-evaluating Women’s Work in Archaeology, History and Heritage, 1870 – 1950'. Previous externally funded research projects have focused on legacy descriptions of art objects ('Legacies of Catalogue Descriptions and Curatorial Voice: Opportunities for Digital Scholarship', Arts and Humanities Research Council), the preservation of intangible cultural heritage ('Coptic Culture Conservation Collective', British Council, and 'Heritage Repertoires for inclusive and sustainable development', British Academy), the born digital archival record ('Digital Forensics in the Historical Humanities', European Commission), and decolonial futures for museum collections ('Making African Connections: Decolonial Futures for Colonial Collections', Arts and Humanities Research Council). Prior to joining Southampton, James held positions of Senior Lecturer in Digital History and Archives at the University of Sussex and Director of the Sussex Humanities Lab, Digital Curator at the British Library, and Postdoctoral Fellow with the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. He is a member of the Arts and Humanities Research Council Peer Review College, a convenor of the Institute of Historical Research Digital History seminar, a member of The Programming Historian Editorial Board and a Director of ProgHist Ltd (Company Number 12192946), and an International Advisory Board Member of British Art Studies.

Soja, Geography, La Sarthe

This then is the beginning mark II. Having only began my blogging adventure in April (here), I find myself migrating, frustrated at being hamstrung by Blogger. Though it was a good place to start, here I feel genuine power in every tap of the keyboard.
Or I would, were I not so full of caffeine and so lacking sleep so as to feel a little dazed, tired and undone. Two hours ago I completed by yearly pilgrimage ‘to’ the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Not that this requires leaving my living room. Rather through a panoply of electronic devices I travel there. To Le Mans. To Circuit de la Sarthe.

Describing the viewing of sport as a disembodiment of self is well rehearsed within sociological theory. I shall not, therefore, rehearse those arguments here. Instead as I had the pleasure of spending some of the last 26 hours revisiting Edward Soja’s classic Thirdspace (1996), I wanted to relay, briefly, some thoughts.

Circuit La Sarthe is a real place, bisecting the fields outside the french city of Le Mans. It is made more real, so says motorsport lore, as the Mulsanne straight is a public road – approachable, mundane and functional for much of the year. The last race driver to die on the Mulsanne was Jean-Louis Lafosse in 1981. A memorial to him can be found by the restaurant half way along the straight. Lafosse is rarely mentioned today, yet motorsport (as your ticket says as you enter any race circuit in Great Britain) is dangerous and the memories of those dangers permeate the Mulsanne. Each year night falls and we pause, collect ourselves, and consider. Occasionally that darkness is combined with rain and we hold our breaths for over eight hours, willing for ‘the past’ (when drivers were killed in motorsport) not to return to ‘the present’ (when deaths on the racetrack are tragic exceptions).
La Sarthe then seems (from the perspective I occupy) to actively reject binaries in a manner Soja claimed to be constituent of thirdspaces – past and present appear co-dependent; the real and the imagined blend, and though perpetually recast remain inseparable.

Tired and exhilarated at the end of my annual encounter with this powerful thirdspace, I am reminded of Soja’s remarks in conclusion of a powerful mini-section entitled ‘Pictured at an Exhibition’ (p194):

As the videotape ends and prepares itself to begin again, I am reminded once more of Foucault. “The heterotopia,” he wrote, “begins to function at full capacity when men arrive at a sort of absolute break with their traditional time.” Perhaps this is what has been happening to the Place de la Bastille and to “other spaces” in the historical city. The power of place is being first neutralized and then inverted. New places of power emerge, writ larger, as the history of modernity is forcefully collapsed into contemporary conservative postmodern geographies. To continue interpreting them from modernist perspectives is to miss the point.

Just after I read this last night Mike Rockenfeller’s #1 Audi pitched ferociously into an armco barrier. The car, traveling close to top speed, shattered on impact. For some time we held our breath. Would this be a spot which would hereafter be associated with the death of a 27 year old German, a man who would thereafter exist in perpetual stasis, a flat item of the past punctuating an annual present? Thankfully Rocky was fine. The incident and the location at which it took place will now (no doubt) be referred to earnestly for a few years before entering the general ‘heritage’ of Le Mans – a heritage which gives the track meaning and in itself would contain little meaning without being added to (very thirdspaceish behaviour). I too will now (for sometime I suspect) recall the real-and-imagined location I was when I saw the crash. The experience of revisiting Soja (itself connecting me back to Southampton, photographs of Scottish borderlands, and maps of Welsh mountains…) will also perhaps contain hereafter a kernel of Circuit de la Sarthe, darkness, a static circuit camera, fear, #1, and ambulance lights.