Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History


Environments are assemblages produced by human and non-human actors, which in turn structure behaviors and social relations.

Bodies and Structures 1.0 contained a Crossing (top-level tag) called “Built Environments.” But in Bodies and Structures 2.0, we have broadened this category to “Environments.” Our shift reflects our engagement with environmental history, which argues that all environments are assemblages produced by human and non-human actors. A building, for example, is a “built environment” (see our 1.0 essay). But it is also shaped by the topography of the land it occupies and the raw materials that give it its frame and which decay and shift in their own ways over time. In the same way, we cannot point to a “natural” environment that is wholly distinct from a “built” environment, as even the category “natural” is a product of historical separation between nature and human which emerged as part of industrialism. Even places defined by their topography—deltas and littoral zones, for example—are produced by human actors in particular historical moments working under environmental, political, and social constraints (e.g., Biggs, Mitchell).

At the same time, much of what we originally wrote to describe the “Built Environments” tag applies to this broader “Environments” definition as well. Environments are, to use Thomas Gieryn’s analysis of buildings, “the consequence and structural cause of social practices.” They are symbolic spaces, which are made meaningful through interpretation in particular historical contexts. Yet they are also ideological spaces that act on human action by constraining “agents' conscious apprehension, interpretation or mobilization” or “[structuring] practices without necessarily requiring actors' knowledgeable involvement" (Gieryn 2002, 41, 37). As Leif Jerram argues, environments constitute the “obdurate matter” of space. Historical analyses may explore how human agents may work against, for, or within particular built environments, but they must in any event take into account the “authority” of the environment (Jerram 2013, 419; and 415, quoting Melosi 2010, 3-21).

In Conversation with Other Crossings

All Bodies and Structures tags draw their specific meanings from the Environments that constitute them. Flows and Immobilities take place within particular environments and they are determined by those environments and they can (re)shape those environments. Likewise, the environments shape the specific ways that Boundaries, Figures, Rationalities, Vehicles, and Imaginative Geographies manifest in different historical moments.

What makes Environments specific as a Crossing is its attention to these assemblages as specific material sites that generate historically specific discourses, practices, and communities.  “Infrastructures,” “Boats and Buildings,” “Streets and Waterways,” and the four zones (Littoral, Maritime, Continental, and Aerial) each reference environments that played a constitutive role in shaping discourse, practices, or communities in a particular time and place and which historical actors identified as distinct and meaningful.


Biggs, David. Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014.

Gieryn, Thomas F. “What Buildings Do.” Theory and Society 31 (2002): 35–74.

Jerram, Leif. “Space: A Useless Category for Historical Analysis?” History and Theory 52, no. 3 (2013): 400–419.

Melosi, Martin V. “Humans, Cities, and Nature: How Do Cities Fit in the Material World?” Journal of Urban History 36, no. 1 (2010): 3–21.

Mitchell, Timothy. Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

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