A history of the concept of distance?

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.

Have we?

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?

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7 Responses to A history of the concept of distance?

  1. That’s a really interesting question. What first sprang to mind was some of the work of Callon, Law, Latour and others, in which can be read an account of distance as the outcome of particular modes of ordering (or network-building, e.g. 228-232 in Science in Action). However, such arguments quickly collapse into stories of distance – as geometric space – being conquered by expansionary forces. Lefebvre does indeed offer some interesting hints, e.g. “The adoption of another people’s gods always entails the adoption of their space and system of measurement…” (p111, Production of Space). Your reference to Heidegger reminded me of the early pilgrimage maps which traced a linear itinery spaced by travelling time, such as those produced by Matthew Paris. However, it seems that a fuller conceptual history of distance has so far fallen through the cracks between the history of metrology, the history of cartography, and the conceptual history of space.

  2. Pingback: A history of distance? | Open Geography

  3. Martina Winkler says:

    This is amazing – I thought about thispoint so much in the last few months, and I am happy that I don’t seem to be the only one. This really seems to be a point that needs discussion. I work on perceptions of space in Russia, with a particular interest in Imperial expansion to Northeast Siberia and Russian America. “Distance” is always assumed to be vital category here, but to my knowledge no historian has yet really analysed it anf put it into a historical context. Russia is simply supposed to be vast, but the historical changes of the conception of vastness and distance are usually being ignored. In addition, distance is always considered something to be overcome (see, for instance, the German book “die Ueberwindung der Distanz” by the ethnologist Kaschuba), but it has not been considered in and off itself. I have recently given a paper on the topic, where I considered especially the first Russian circumnavigation which changed the perceptions of distance among Russians, but there still seems to be a lot work to be done. The interdependence of time and space is a crucial point here, I believe- quite helpful and inspiring is, for instance, James Scott’s Art of nor being governed. As I am grappling with the problem myself, I’d be very happy to discuss this in depth and share my thoughts so far.

  4. concept of distance is it relative or constant should be brought into mind where distance is measured in length or covered by time may vary when speed accelerates distance can be reduced within a stipulated time ,space and time will also play vital thing distance can be squeezed like elasticity when we cover the distance in a matter spec

  5. dianamaps says:

    I’ve been working on a short book about “distance” for a couple of years now, though it always gets bumped by other projects. Several geographers have written ideas over the years that have influenced my thoughts: Gatrell’s “Distance and Space: a Geographical Perspective,” for example. And a little paper by Witthuhn titled, “Distance: an extraordinary spatial concept.” But I’ve also loved researching things like the mathematician(s) who wrote the “Encyclopedia of Distances” and related works.

    Maybe later in 2013 I’ll be able to wrap it up.

    • stuartelden says:

      This sounds really interesting – do let me know when the book is out or you have material you are willing to share. Good luck with finishing it up.

  6. stuartelden says:

    See https://progressivegeographies.com/2013/02/13/laura-kurgan-close-up-at-a-distance/ for a new book coming out that may be helpful, and further back, there is some discussion in Jean Gottmann, The Significance of Territory, pp. 96-7.

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