How the Visual Is Spatial: Contemporary Spatial History, Neo-Marxism, and the Ghost of Braudel

Contemporary spatial history is founded on the potential for maps and other visualizations to show the historical constructedness of space, usually in broadly neo-Marxist terms, yet neo-Marxist geographical theory is famously critical of visual representation, especially mapping. At stake in this contradiction isn't just the relationship between digital enthusiasm and spatial theory (or the wider spatial turn), but the theoretical status of the visual itself in spatial scholarship. It raises a crucial question: how does visual material—everything from today's statistical maps and cutting-edge data graphics to the broader use of primary-source photographs or drawings—in fact shape our understanding of space, and what theoretical work does it do? By extension, how can humanists make critical theoretical interventions through their own visual production? This article proposes an analytic vocabulary of “visual argument” grounded in an image-focused rereading of two canonical bodies of work: the neo-Marxist theory most cited by spatial history (Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey, Doreen Massey, and Edward Soja) and the conspicuously uncited work of Fernand Braudel. By focusing on how these authors’ illustrations make claims about spatial subjectivity and the historicity of space—especially through visual relationships of background and foreground—I argue for a new way of understanding and responding to this work and to the visual project of spatial history today. A visual analysis highlights not only the limitations of neo-Marxism but also the pervasiveness of certain assumptions—shared across the neo-Marxists, Braudel, and digital visualization—about temporality, the natural/human dichotomy, and the methodological tensions between argument and visualization. I present my own mapping of Phoenix as one possibility for an argument-driven rethinking of familiar visual commitments, which also suggests a broader meditation on the relationship between visual and textual scholarship.