Everyone talks about space, but no one does anything about it.
This week’s essay explores the work of French Marxist Henri Lefebvre, a philosopher and sociologist whose life and work (1901-1991) spanned the 20th Century. Lefebvre’s influence continues apace; his writing on the urban, and on everyday life, in addition to spatialization studies, have only grown more relevant.
Be forewarned that this is only a broad introduction. 1974’s The Production of Space, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith in 1991, represents the foundational text for Lefebvre’s recasting of space (literal and metaphoric) as a fundamental and overlooked social force. At times, it can turn into a difficult work: learned, but non-linear, when not outright dense. Space is also a fountain of insight, contrary observations, and ideas that continue to resonate in fields as disparate as urban theory and literary criticism.
Lefebvre's Marxist humanism remains erudite if not a little prankish. At times, he seems to invite the reader to stop reading and open a window or take a walk. He's not frivolous in this, but understands rather the importance of a fresh view.
As he reminds his audience in 1970’s The Urban Revolution:
“Marx […] conceived of a path, not a model”Translator Nicholson-Smith points out in a footnote that the French word espace possesses multiple meanings, some conveyed in English by alternate words such as “sector” or “sphere." Thus, in The Production of Space, Lefebvre surveys numerous sectors, spheres, and spaces in order to trace one path wherein space is defined as a “trialectic” or “spatial triad:” a social force that informs time and history.
So what is space?
We often think of space as mere emptiness: as a container for meaning or material objects, awaiting inscription. To Lefebvre, our common conception of space is but a "double illusion," that comes into focus as two mutually-reinforcing forms: an “illusion of transparency,” conjoined with “the realist illusion.”
Thando Mama: mind-space, 2004 link
Space “appears as luminous, as intelligible, as giving action free rein” - Lefebvre, The Production of Space (p.29)“[This] illusion of transparency” situates space as luminous, knowable and expressible, often given weight and flight by language. Said illusion downplays the environment (social, physical) in favor of what could be construed as a totalizing, philosophical idealism. We here encounter mental space as detached from the influence of material and social space. Latent revolutionary potential while present (p.29), remains solely that- potential. Space becomes sublimated to the world of the mind, as if the world existed solely in mental space.
On the other side of the binary, “The realist illusion” privileges “‘things’” (read: materialism) over “…the ‘subject,’ his thought and desires.” In other words, mental and social space(s) are here subordinate to physical space. Lefebvrean scholar Edward Soja, in Postmodern Geographies, addresses the manner in which the illusion enables the reduction of the natural world to so much grid-space: Space is [situated in this illusion as] "objectively and concretely there to be fully measured and accurately described" (p. 64).
Capitalism’s critics by now might suspect that “the realist illusion” masks a genuine peril; a world to win becoming nothing more than a world to demarcate, parcel out or otherwise commodify:
"Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, 'When I grow up I will go there.' […] But there was one yet – the biggest, the most blank, so to speak – that I had a hankering after." - Joseph Conrad, Heart of DarknessUltimately, these two illusions obscure the enduring presence of space as a social force. Lefebvre describes the double-illusion of space as a stratagem designed to mask the fact that space is, in essence, a social product; omnipresent, while paradoxically invisible.
Lest this come across as so much counting of angels on the heads of pins (weighing pie might be more apropos in DKos parlance), early in the text, he reminds the reader that overlooking what he calls the “truth of space” results in fragmented alienation:
[…] we are forever hearing of architectural, plastic or literary ‘spaces’; the term is used much as one might speak of a particular writer’s or artist’s ‘world.’ Specialized works keep their audience abreast of equally specialized spaces: leisure, work, play, transportation, public facilities- are all spoken of in spatial terms. […] We are thus confronted by an indefinite multitude of spaces, each one piled upon, or perhaps contained within, the next: geographical, economic, demographic, sociological, ecological, political, commercial, national, continental, global. Not to mention nature’s (physical) space, the space of (energy) flows, and so on. - Lefebvre, The Production of Space (p.8)
The three sides of space: the perceived, the conceived, and the lived
At the core of The Production of Space, there lies a triangle. Some (see below) might view it as a circle. As if to cover as much of the ground listed in the quote above, it represents Lefebvre’s emblem for the spatial process; “trialectic” (i.e. a three-sided dialectic), spatial triad… all of the terms suffice. However, the terms applied to each end of the triangle vary in complexity even as they have the same general designation.
As you can see, the terminology appears to overlap in translation. Ignore for the moment the repetition of "representation" and focus on the visual. Lefebvre's discussion early in the introduction of the "double illusion" now makes more sense. Whether envisioned as a circle or a triangle, these three aspects work in concert with each other to produce space: a continuum at once physical, natural, and mental. However, this relationship, seldom "simple or stable" (Space, p.46), takes on considerable complexity as Lefebvre’s treatise progresses.
Space, Lefebvre argues, has been overlooked in favor of time and history; one could extrapolate that time and history might be better pictured as two sides of a lever, balancing on the pivot of space.
I will use the terms perceived space, conceived space, and lived space for clarity. Keep in mind (there's a spatial pun in there somewhere) that as envisioned by Lefebvre, overlap exists between these three types of space.
Perceived Space (spatial practice)
Embraces production and reproduction: spatial practice embodies how space is conceived of as well as how an individual within a city or a nation-state within an area "lives". By way of one example, spatial practice often includes the physical transformation of the environment.
Lefebvre utilizes an effective example of this practice at work in describing the roads of medieval Europe. He expounds at length on the socio-economic forces that divide the rural town and urban city, noting that there was already a network of roads in place. These roads served multiple purposes; moreover, physical location tended to dictate the type of road present. The roads that connected these cities to each other were emblematic of the nascent commercial ties already extant. These particular thoroughfares would be far less traveled or might not exist in the absence of cities. At the same time, there were the local roads less known by the travelers between cities, but important to those who lived in the city or in the rural areas. Lefebvre then segues to one social activity that clearly demonstrated the need for both types of roads- religious pilgrimages. These pilgrimages fulfilled societal needs (few of them necessarily religious or spiritual as you might recall from your Chaucer!) and was made possible by these roads. The roads were perceived to fulfill such a need; conceived of for other social-economic needs; and came into use for this purpose as a result of the practices of everyday life.
Conceived Space (representations of space)
If perceived space embraces production and reproduction, conceived space buttresses the relations of production and to 'order' (i.e. social, natural). As its nomenclature implies, this spatial element includes fields as diverse as urban planning or archetypal criticism.
The practices embedded within said representations of space emphasize knowledge, signs, and codes, certainly influenced and shaped by the other two spatial elements; however, it also seeks to impose a structure that may or may not naturally 'emanate' from the other two.
The examples here are numerous as they "make" our workaday world: buildings, roads, houses, malls, subdivisions, and etc. Yet, the surveyor's map is every bit as much an example of conceived space as the subdivision it maps over the "empty" land it will supplant.
James S Scott's Seeing Like a State documents the manner in which bureaucratic ennui, and technocratic and ideological rigidity compromise conceived space. Scott's examples --including Tanzania's forced villiagization scheme under Julius Nyerere's ujamaa program and the planning and establishment of Brasilia as Brazil's capital-- tend to emphasize his thesis that grand social engineering schemes, in his view a hallmark of High Modernist culture, usually fail in that they seek to impose a lived space instead of being influenced by the lived spaces found throughout greater social space.
Lived Space (representational spaces)
The last of Lefebvre's spatial elements appears the most sweeping of the three. Given his work with the Situationist movement, it is likely the one most vivid in his imagination. Images and symbols --and the manner in which space is directly lived vis a vis symbolization-- create lived space. Lefebvre's examples here include painting, writing, architecture and other works of art; yet, he outlines the unsung role played by lived space in his emphasis on the symbolic (whether religious, political, economic etc.). For, Lefebvre 20th Century space as a whole was particularly defined and shaped by lived space: Jungian archetypal theory and Bachelard's spatial poetics constitute examples of literature, psychology, and philosophy redolent of lived space.
"Under the Pavement, the Beach:" Situationist motto, Paris May 1968.
To my mind, the famous Situationist slogan from Paris '68 --"Under the Pavement, the Beach"-- expresses the general tenor of lived space as Lefebvre defines it. City and Beach are settings almost diametrically opposed to each other: the former, an overt advertisement of its own commodification; the latter, a pastoral place (the Atlantic Gulf notwithstanding, post-Deepwater) that belies its own use value. One becomes reminded of its worth as a tourist or economic locale only when tourists or workers enter or otherwise reveal themselves.
Nonetheless, even the cities have their parks. In fact, in even the largest cities one can find pastoral spaces that serve as a testament to the power of lived time.
Is Space the Place? Concluding Remarks
No space disappears in the course of growth and development:the worldwide does not abolish the local. - Lefebvre, The Production of Space (p.86) emphasis LefebvreMy original intent for this piece was twofold. First, I wanted to introduce an important theoretician to a receptive DKos audience. Of course, many of you probably already know his work, which brings me to my second reason; in reviewing my notes and sources and writing a piece meant for a general audience, I wanted to get Lefebvre's spatial triad clearer in my own thought.
If I’ve accomplished the latter, I also hope to have been successful in the former. Other avenues await exploration, including the connections between the expanding corpus of spatial studies in relation to its academic cousin, the study of place. With the relationship between the global and the local in a greater flux than at any time in recent history, viewing this relationship through a spatial lens might well lead to solutions otherwise hidden.
Sources consulted not linked above:
Charnock, Greig. "Challenging New State Spatialities: The Open Marxism of Henri Lefebvre." Antipode 42, no. 5 (2010): 1279-303. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8330.2010.00802.x.
Merrifield, Andy. Henri Lefebvre: A Critical Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Shaffer, E. S. Literary Devolution: Writing in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Smith, Neil. Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008.
Soja, Edward W. Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-imagined Places. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996.