At Open Geography, Jeremy Crampton reports a conversation:
A colleague recently asked me if geographers have written anything on the history of distance as a concept, especially since the Medieval period and the early modern. (He had in mind Elden’s history of territory.) I must admit I was stumped.
So far the only comment is to point to Barnett, Robinson and Rose’s Geographies of Globalisation which “explores the geographies of proximity and distance that shape globalization, and considers the politics of responsibility that it brings”.
In my history of territory, I do discuss distance a bit, particularly in terms of the changing meanings of the notion of spatium. In classical Latin this tends to mean a distance, a stretch or extent, rather than a container. It could relate to a span of time; the spacing between stones in building; or the distance between parts of an army – all those senses are found in Julius Caesar. A lap of a chariot race was sometimes described as a spatium – as it is in Virgil and Juvenal. All of those are instances of distance. In late Scholasticism this term became associated with particular notions of locus, and Descartes transformed the way we understood spatium by relating it to the the notion of extenso – itself related to distance as extension in length, breadth and depth – which makes spatium, space into more of a container. So the relation between space and distance would be one way to look into this question – and I suspect there were be some useful pointers in, for example, Lefebvre’s The Production of Space and Casey’s The Fate of Place.
But the question of distance itself would be a rather different project, even though it would intersect with those other issues. It would need to take into account notions of measure, proximity, etc. Heidegger talks in a few places about how distance and proximity can be understood in relation to concern, and also how distance can be related to time – it’s about five minutes walk, or as long as it takes to smoke a pipe. Technologies are important too – distances could change depending on terrain to be crossed, or the season. I wonder if historians of science have said much about this question – it would be important to all sorts of contemporary questions. I suppose literature on relational spaces would have a lot to say to this too.
It’s a good question, and there might be a worthwhile project in this. Any other thoughts or reading suggestions?