||On the Method, Structure, and Theory of this Website
by Philip J. Ethington
Writing before anyone could have guessed the tremendous diffusion and saturation of the Internet and the actual growth of "hyperspace," Fredric Jameson laid out a strong programme for developing tools of "cognitive mapping" (following Kevin Lynch's famous method), in order to visualize a particular intersection: "the coordination of existential data (the empirical position of the subject) with unlived, abstract conceptions of the geographic totality."
This website is an attempt to create such an instrument of critical and empirical vision. It is a space-time panopticon, much in the Foucauldian sense, but also a counter-representation, in the spirit of Walter Benjamin. It departs from the disciplinary function of panopticons that Michel Foucault criticized, by generating what Prasenjit Duara calls "dispersion" of narratives. In this sense it is like an insect eye (or the eyes of many persons), with thousands of independent points of view. It is a labyrinth, just as the city is. It is an institutional form (historical scholarship) and it tries to carry out a proposition of Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus:
2.151 Pictorial form is the possibility that things are related to one another in the same way as the elements of the picture.
2.1511 That is how a picture is attached to reality; it reaches right out to it.
2.1512 It is laid against reality like a measure.
There are many such pictures in this site, and all are laid out against the place called Los Angeles, like a measure. If I can be permitted to coin one term, this is a "placetery," as much as a "history." Over and above my words, I write without words through narratives that are spatial pathways. All along those paths I indicate spaces that are both sites of global relations ("unlived, abstract conceptions of the geographic totality," in Jameson's phrase quoted above) and irreducibly unique ("the empirical position of the subject"), each a specific instantiation of humanity's infinite crossroads. The site required thousands of hours of detailed labor, and yet it only succeeds in opening more questions about the sites, and about experiences and voices not investigated, as it does about those revealed.
You reach the sites in this site by various means: locations, names, maps, and concepts. Always mediated, the sites themselves are deeply cross-referenced. This site is composed of more than 1,381 independent "pages" of HTML text, .jpg and .gif, and .mov files, as well as at least 7,000 separate links, each of which was set deliberately by my own hand. No multimedia production team helped me produce this, nary even a student assistant. I made this experiment to see if it could be done from start to finish, from design concept to cartography, photography, to web-authoring. It is an e-book, in Robert Darnton's sense: a historically situated mass-disseminated text. It is of a distinct genre that became very common in the late twentieth century but that emerged abruptly from about 1992 to 1998 (much as cinema exploded within about five years, from about 1898 to 1903). More technically, it should be a matter of record that I created all of the maps using ESRI's ArcView 3.0 (R), image manipulation with Adobe PhotoShop 4.0 (R) and MGI PhotoVista 2.0 (R), and the web site itself with Adobe GoLive 4.0 (R). Except for the Central Avenue segment, all of the street photography with a date more recent than 1996 is also my own work. As a historian, I of course did all of the archival work as well, in research that began about 1995.
A major limitation was imposed on me by the editors of the American Historical Review for historycooperative.org: I could not use "frames," a common way of organizing web sites. I am glad that this stricture was imposed, because it makes the site more simple and elegant. But it also cost many hundreds of hours of labor, because I had to manually set links that would have been easy to globalize with a hierarchical structure. One result may be a certain error rate among the thousands of links within the site. The site consists of at least 1,381 separate files in about 251 directories. These directories are a hierarchical tree organized by the major categories in the menu bar.
In the end, this website is a city of its own. I argue in the "Essay," in fact, that cities converge with their representations through a phenomenology of indexical linkages. This thesis should explain why I do not believe that the website is "virtual" reality, nor does it exist in some unreal "hyperspace." It occupies very real geometric space on your computer screen, and the files displayed are real electromagnetic entities. They have addressesjust like your home or office, which are expressed as "URLs," for Universal Resource Locator. Every time you click on a mapped portion of your screen, a file is fetched from the server on which this site was published, and transported to your computer. In other words, the action performed is identical to the model of indexical knowledge I outline in the Essay.