Barbara Hui

About Litmap

I created Litmap as part of my Comparative Literature PhD dissertation project. It's a digital map that plots all of the places that are mentioned in W.G. Sebald's novel, The Rings of Saturn.

Litmap is featured in the documentary Patience (After Sebald), directed by Grant Gee. You can also read about the project in this New York Times ArtsBeat post.

If you'd like to read more about the theoretical context for Litmap, following is something I wrote in 2009 to explain the project in the context of my dissertation.

Litmap was created with the goal of enabling humanities scholars to read literature spatially – a mode of reading which I believe to be crucial to understanding contemporary literature and textuality at large today. The Litmap application aims to leverage the strengths of the digital computing platform to present literary narratives in a way that opens up spatial readings of those texts.

What is meant by spatial?

Taking up the call of spatial thinkers such as Henri Lefebvre, Edward Said, Edward Soja, and Doreen Massey, as well as literary “cartographer” Franco Moretti, spatiality is here conceived of in all of its conceptual complexity. This includes a consideration of the geospatial shape of the narrative, i.e. the contours that emerge when the place names mentioned in the texts are plotted on geospatial map image. It also includes attention to the more subjective, slippery—yet no less real—spatialities at work in each narrative, including the scale of global and local place, and the networks of colonialism, imperialism, migration, language, and media that exist across and between those places. The project seeks to represent and examine these networks as they exist in and around literature. Indeed, the network emerges as a crucial spatial paradigm for understanding contemporary narratives.

What is meant by geospatial?

By definition, geospatial is an adjective used to describe or denote data that is associated with a particular location. This is geographical space and place as conceived of in a positivist, empirical way. In other words, the earth is thought of as a spherical surface on which one can plot any location with a certain degree of mathematical accuracy using, for example, numerical latitude and longitude coordinates. The use of numerically precise data means that a range of geospatial calculations can be performed on a given geographical dataset. This is typically carried out via the use of Geographical Information Systems (GIS), or computer software specializing in the processing of geographical datasets.

Given the utility and free availability of geospatial applications like Google Maps and Google Earth, GIS technology and its attendant geographical representations are becoming rapidly entrenched in our cultural consciousness. Those of us who live in well-mapped locales and have access to networked personal computing technology are growing accustomed to viewing and navigating our surroundings via the use of these geospatial applications.

What is meant by network?

As with the concept of spatiality, the network is here conceived of in both concrete and abstract terms. It includes not only physical networks (wired communications networks, transportation networks, etc.) but also the colonial, imperial, migratory, and linguistic networks constituted by the movements of people, goods, and ideas across geographical space. Additionally, it includes imaginary networks such as those that exist in Stephen Hall’s novel The Raw Shark Texts in which people throw off both tangible and intangible linguistic traces of themselves, and are hunted down via this stream of bait by terrifyingly real yet otherworldly “primordial thought sharks.” In Hall’s novel, each person’s linguistic output is conceived of as a fundamentally material extension of the subject. Litmap allows the reader to map both the concrete geospatial aspects of the novel (“Hull, Leeds, Sheffield” (104)) and also the “un-space” that exists within its spatial imaginary: a labyrinth of tunnels underground, and a trip to a parallel thought world.

Networks are in the general sense “an arrangement or structure with intersecting lines and interstices resembling those of a net” (“Network, N,”). At the interstices exist the nodes of the network. This paradigm of the network is recognizable in many contexts. On geographical maps, the lines are the railroad tracks, roads, and flight paths; the nodes are the stations, villages, towns, and cities (i.e., geographical places) where those lines intersect. The Internet is of course a famous example of a communications network. An early Internet map shows connections between different locations “on the network”: the lines represent data wires, while the nodes are the locations at which those wires meet and the digital data they carry is processed.

The kinds of networks illustrated via Litmap are numerous, with each narrative containing one or often multiple networks, each of a unique configuration. Depending on the kind of spatial information given in each narrative, these networks are plotted with varying degrees of geospatial precision. Sometimes it is possible to map a piece of literature almost entirely down to the street level, while at other times the text requires much more subjective and abstract spatial renderings.

What is meant by place?

In keeping with spatial theorist Doreen Massey, I contend that places be defined as the nodes that are constituted by the intersection of multiple lines or paths of social networks. As she describes it:

[W]hat gives a place its specificity is not some long internalized history but the fact that it is constructed out of a particular constellation of social relations, meeting and weaving together at a particular locus. If one moves in from the satellite towards the globe, holding all those networks of social relations and movements and communications in one’s head, then each ‘place’ can be seen as a particular, unique, point of their intersection. It is, indeed, a meeting place. Instead then, of thinking of places as areas with boundaries around, they can be imagined as articulated moments in networks of social relations and understandings, but where a large proportion of those relations, experiences and understandings are constructed on a far larger scale than what we happen to define for that moment as the place itself, whether it be a street, a region, or even a continent. (28)
Thus places denoted by markers on map images are not fixed, immobile, bounded entities with unified histories, but rather dynamic, socially defined “moments.” While it is true that each latitude and longitude point would still exist on the map without an attached pin (or place), it is crucial to understand that these mathematically-defined coordinates do not give place its particularity, nor did that place as place exist a priori. Rather, it is the fact of the intersection of various social networks at that location which give it its very definition as place. As Massey argues, localities do have specificity, but – and this is crucial – they are defined on a far larger scale than that of their geospatially immediate bounded surroundings.

The built-in ability of digital mapping interfaces to zoom in for a local view and out for a global view, coupled with the ability to programmatically draw connecting lines between places based on certain predefined criteria, make for a platform inherently adept at representing the local-global, networked nature of space and place that Massey so compellingly argues for. The user of Litmap can therefore zoom in to examine the particularities of a place mentioned in a text and then zoom out to look at the way in which it is connected to other locations within that text’s spatial imaginary.

Works Cited

Hall, Steven. The Raw Shark Texts. New York: Canongate, 2007.

Massey, Doreen. "A Global Sense of Place." Marxism Today June 1991: 24-29.

“Network.” . Def. A.2.a. The Oxford English Dictionary. Web. 28 October 2009. <>.