Skip to main content

Three Notes on Henri Lefebvre

Six months down, four texts in. Although, in my defence, Henri Lefebvre's The Production of Space is a 400+ page opus, and everything always gets wiped by the end of term! Engaging with such a long text is always hard, especially when (as often) it is the sidenotes and digressions which are often most fascinating: an analysis of Venice (pp.73-7), a phenomenology of doors and windows which immediately follows a spatial reading of sleep (pp.208-9), a philosophy of red light districts (pp.319-30) or beaches (p.353, 384)... Yet I think I can break Lefebvre's programme down into three interlinked positions.

1. A Philosophy of Space. Like a number of thinkers in philosophy, geography and critical theory, Lefebvre's central contention is that space is not just a neutral container in which things, acts and events occur, but something made by human beings and societies. Whether it is marks, posts, traces, borders, centres, locales, itineraries, passages, tracks, flows, segments, compartments, strata, circles, circuits, radii, repetitions, omphali, heights and many other things analysed in the 'Spatial Architectonics' chapter and throughout, Lefebvre insists that 'practical activity writes upon nature' (p.117) and creates the space we inhabit. So, for instance, an urban spatiality creates 'the street' (in which certain codes apply), places of discourse and meeting (cafés, cinemas, shops), spaces of rest, as well as the private, domestic spaces with their public-facing facades: 'the pre-existence of space conditions the subject's presence, action and discourse, his competence and performance' (p.57). And spatiality differs: the spaces, rhythms and practices of Paris will be different to that of Venice, or New York.

It is worth noting, however, that Lefebvre repeatedly emphasises this is more than just a 'coding' of space (indeed, he repeatedly warns against the idea that semiology, a theory of 'readable' space constituted by certain signs, space-as-text, is all that is involved) but space created by practical activity. Indeed, one the key things set up at the beginning of the book (pp.38-9) is a tripartite schema that clarifies this point. At the root of things is 'spatial practice', which are the social actions and conventions which begin to construct space in a certain way for a given culture. Alongside them are 'representations of space': these are heavily codified interpretations of space often given by experts (philosophers, architects, urban planners). The medieval idea of a world centred on Jerusalem, or the (post)modern idea of an ultra-rationalised capitalist space would be two examples. Finally, and a little confusingly, we have 'representational space', which is space as it is experienced 'on the ground' by social actors. In particular, the tension between 'representations of space' and 'representational space' is key: helpful here, perhaps, is Michel de Certau's similar distinction between looking down on the grid of New York city from a skyscraper (where the 'representation of space' becomes apparent) and lived experience as one navigates the streets themselves ('representational space'?)

Also useful here is Lefebvre's own reiteration of the schema: space as perceived, conceived and lived respectively.

As I said, he frequently alludes to the fact that he is not merely arguing that space is a human construction because it is permeated by signs and symbols (e.g. pp.130-47). In this he is moving against the contemporary (to him) structuralist/post-structuralist linguistic turn, but he is also placing the body and embodiment (like Merleau-Ponty) at the centre of his thought. Space is not just read or interprted, a merely mental operation, but experienced and embodied.

2. A History of Space. Because space derives from spatial practice, the book basically holds a Marxist view: it is the material life of a given society which produces all three elements mentioned above. Indeed, Lefebvre explicitly claims to be extending Marx's theory of production here: where classical Marxism untangled the social relations subtly inscribed in produced objects (most notably, commodities), then this book wants to do the same for space: 'an approach which would analyse not things in space but space itself, with a view to uncovering the social relationships embedded in it' (p.89).

Because societies produce their own spaces and senses of space, what is called for is a history of space (just as Marx had to give a history of things produced by human labour, from pre-history through feudalism and on into capitalism and the era of industrial commodities). This is simply because, as a human/social product, space is contingent; it changes as societies/cultures change.

This project encompasses the bulk of the middle of the text, particularly chapter 4, 5 and 6. This begins with the earliest networks of herding societies - tracks, boundaries, abodes, junctions - and moves through primitive moments in spatiality like monumentality and the sacred. However, Lefebvre really gets going when he analyses Greek space (the complete texture of the Greek city-state, which supposedly enveloped all aspects of life in one single, luminous cosmology), Roman space (which began to inscribe the violence of power and gendering) and early Christianity (in which a chthonic 'under-world' haunted the secular world, breaking the surface at every church and shrine). Lefebvre groups all three under the rubric of 'absolute space', before tracing the emergence of truly secular space which emerges, perhaps ironically, with the great urban cathedrals which leap upwards in a concentration of light and reason (what Lefebvre describes on p.256 as a literal 'de-crypting' of the ghostly spatiality of earlier Christianity).

With the 'de-crypting' of Christian space in the name of reason, and the concentration and accumulation of resources in the late medieval towns and cities, the book hurtles onwards towards modern space. This - in tune with the capitalist economies that produce it - tends towards the mathematical, the rationalised, the clear, the perspectivised, the instrumental: in short, 'abstract space'. It is not that earlier modes of space entirely disappeared (indeed, Lefebvre persistently identifies a 'spatial lag' in all stages of his history) but the new era was an abstract one (whether we are thinking of science, philosophy, art, the rise of the modern state, bureaucracy, finance or economics). Perhaps one of the most useful descriptions of this space comes on pp.285-8, where the book identifies three 'formants' of abstract space. It is 'geometric' (it likes to reduce, to homogenise, to calculate), it is 'optical' (it relegates other senses, and privileges a particular idea of sight and of decipherment in the name of reason) and it is 'phallic' (its drive to abstract, reduce and decipher is ultimately one of power, especially institutional and state power: this is particularly evident on the 'lived' plane of representational space).

Naturally, where the lucid violence of abstract space ends up is in modern - and ultimately postmodern - capitalism. This, in turn, leads us to:

3. A Politics of Space. Although Lefebvre's philosophy demands space has always been produced by and in social practice, like Marx, he is most interested in the modern phase of production. Marx's theory of the commodity (the produced object) suggests that a critical moment has been reached, where increasingly oppressive social conditions apply and find themselves focused in the commodity form (which is emblematic of the way that our everyday labour is alienated from us, handed over to the capitalists, and then confronts us in the shape of a monetised market which we seemingly cannot control). Lefebvre basically makes the same argument about produced spaces: they too are alienated, despite ultimately being the product of our own acts.

This takes us to postmodern capitalism, where Lefebvre repeatedly diagnoses the reign of reductive, homogenising, violent abstract space: whether that be in the banal, administered architecture of urban housing, the emergence of a truly world market, the ghostliness of global finance and data flows, or the thorough commodification of play and leisure. However, Lefebvre also feels that the system is reaching a point whereby contradictions are beginning to emerge and destabilise it (again, this is a Marxian trope). This is what the book terms 'contradictory space'. Chiefly, whilst the abstract space of capitalism reaches for more and more homogeneity (all values become commodity values, the market becomes globalised), this abstraction of space can only ever occur in an increasingly fragmented set of times and places: points occupied by particular actors and particular things. (On this complex set of arguments, see pp.320 and 340-2). It is only through a violent effort - of power (p.341), bureaucratic centralisation (p.332) or the deception of images and signs (p.389) - that the fractured/totalised world-space can be held together. There are also some important ecological elements to this argument: chiefly based on the fact that whereas older capitalism merely inserted commodified activity into the space of nature, now nature - i.e. space in its broadest sense - is itself commodified, as basic resources like air or water become scarce and endangered - cf. pp.323-30.

All these mounting contradictions hold out the hope for an overturning of abstract space. Yet Lefebvre - perhaps in tune with the revolutionary disenchantment of his age - is only tentative about these revolutionary possibilities. A series of binaries stratify his work: art versus product, 'work' versus commodity, erotic/play versus reason, so-called 'appropriation' (a harmonious inhabiting of space) versus 'domination' (a violent inhabiting). He looks at various groups who might be able to spearhead a new understanding of space, beginning from those opening contradictions in capitalist space: cultural elites, women, various counter-cultures. It seems it will come from the body, from use-value, from desire rather than need, and from a type of producing things which is not in thrall to late capital. His own philosophy gives him the resource of lived space - 'representational spaces' - which is always have a kind of subversive autonomy from the 'representations of space' handed down by power.

But, of course, he cannot hand down a programme for social, political and spatial revolution in a philosophical text: because it would be too abstract, and space can only be produced by and through material spatial practice; by actors and bodies. Hence, all he offers is a series of orientations, albeit a series that is quite clear in what it aims for:

On the horizon, then, at the furthest edge of the possible...a matter of producing the space of the human species - the collective (generic) work of the species - on the model of what used to be called 'art' (p.422)

Because 'space' is our most fundamental social, political and historical product, our societies, politics and histories can only be transformed through a reinvention of space.

Popular posts from this blog

On Lauren Berlant

I used to work with literary theory a lot more than I do now: my own trajectory and the disciplinary boundaries of Romantic Studies have led me away from it. However, if my Facebook feed is anything to go by, the most exciting stuff happening in theory in recent years has tended to come from the sites of 'queer theory': e.g. late Butler, Halberstam and, above all, Lauren Berlant. So it was good to get down to Cruel Optimism. As with all these theory blogs, I'm coming at this from a decent level of expertise in deconstruction, phenomenology and bits of post-Marxism, but not necessarily for other schools: so all errors and misconstruals will hopefully be excused!

1. Temporality. Above all, Berlant is investigating a particular kind of contemporary present. Her scene is set, largely in the West, in a late capitalist epoch: post-globalisation, post 9/11, post-financial crash. The citizens of this moment are a precariat, subject to a 'neoliberal feedback loop, with its effi…

On Laclau and Mouffe

Poor Bruno Latour. Like my 2013 monograph challenge and the rather more modest 2014 'minor Romantic' binge before it, it turns out trying to fit something else blogworthy in between the demands of modern academia and real life is quite hard - as such, I only managed nine rather than ten theorists in 2015. So Latour's We Have Never Been Modern falls off the edge, for the time being at least, and I end up with Ernest Laclau and Chantal Mouffe's Hegemony and Socialist Strategy.

1. The problematic from which the study sets off is, broadly, the insufficiency and disintegration of the orthodox Marxist political model, which posited both a deterministic progress through phases of history, and a priori 'subjects' of history such as the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. These premises became increasingly difficult to maintain as one observes a 'disjuncture between "theory" and "observable tendencies of capitalism"' (loc. 834).* For example, it…