Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Lefebvre’s ways of analyzing social space (2nd of 3)

Part 1 rendered my sense of Henri Lefebvre’s main argument in The Production of Space (1991[1974]). This Part 2 examines how he goes about analyzing social space in historical and scientific terms. Part 3 will then look into what I most want to see: how much his analysis includes time and action dimensions, along with space.

I suppose this series about Lefebvre will interest few readers. The topic may seem arcane, and the posts too long. But they’re enabling me to get a better grip on STA (even if it’s not evident yet), and I’d rather place long posts with long quotes here, handy for future reference, than leave the drafts isolated on my home computer. (One way for a reader to ease reading is to skip the quotes, for I’ve embedded key phrases in the text that heads most quotes.)

A nagging concern is that I’ve not read Lefebvre’s book in its entirety. As I noted at the end of Part 1, I’ve read some chapters, but not all — just a little more than enough to learn that he covers the full STA triplex despite his focus on space. Every time I go back to search the book for something, I spot another interesting passage in a chapter I’ve left unread. Some of these passages now appear in Parts 2 and 3. But I wouldn’t be surprised to learn I’ve missed other significant passages, or even themes.

Onward, anyway. It’s an intriguing book, important too. (And a little browsing in a few expert secondary sources does not indicate I’ve left out too much, except for a lot of his Marxism.)

Toward a history of space

Lefebvre aspires to lay out a history and a science of space. As for “the long history of space,” much of the book dwells on how to analyze history from a spatial perspective, an endeavor he locates “between anthropology and political economy”:
“What we are concerned with, then, is the long history of space, even though space is neither a 'subject' nor an 'object' but rather a social reality — that is to say, a set of relations and forms. This history is to be distinguished from an inventory of things in space (or what has recently been called material culture or civilization), as also from ideas and discourse about space. It must account for both representational spaces and representations of space, but above all for their interrelationships and their links with social practice. The history of space thus has its place between anthropology and political economy.” (p. 116)
Much of his historical analysis dwells on philosophical writings by Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche about the concept of space. But his ruminations extend way beyond philosophy: He contrasts natural and artificial (man-made) spaces, tracing how the latter have suborned the former. He compares spatial orientations found in countrysides and cities, and uses the rise of cities like Venice to explain what he means. He characterizes different historical eras, notably the Medieval and capitalist eras, according to how people treated space, often using architecture for evidence. He calls attention to the historical development of “absolute space” (p. 94) and “abstract space” (pp. 123-124) — notions I’m not sure I understand. He disparages the modernist Bauhaus movement for propagating abstract concepts of “global space” (p. 125). Furthermore, as noted in Part 1, he contrasts the Soviet and Chinese communist approaches to space, in order to show that his theory of space is capable of accounting for revolutionary experiences worldwide across history (p. 421). Altogether, that’s a sweeping undertaking.

His complex view of “social space” holds that its history began early on as a mostly “natural space” and then evolved an “absolute space” and increasingly an “abstract space” (if I read him correctly). For example, to make his point about the early significance of natural space, he says, rather complicatedly:
“This [social] space qualifies as a 'thing/not-thing', for it is neither a substantial reality nor a mental reality, it cannot be resolved into abstractions, and it consists neither in a collection of things in space nor in an aggregate of occupied places. Being neither space-as-sign nor an ensemble of signs related to space, it has an actuality other than that of the abstract signs and real things which it includes. The initial basis or foundation of social space is nature — natural or physical space.” (p. 402)
The historical evolution of “absolute space” began in ancient times with rites and ceremonies, along with statues of gods and goddesses (p. 48) — making his point that absolute space is originally fundamentally religious. Later, it is also manifested as “absolute political space” — a “strategic space” that is the “locus and medium of Power” and the space of the state, though it may end up “disappearing into … the world market.”:
“[T]here is a total object, namely absolute political space - that strategic space which seeks to impose itself as reality despite the fact that it is an abstraction, albeit one endowed with enormous powers because it is the locus and medium of Power.” (p. 94)
“Proceeding in the same manner apropos of space, we may wonder whether the state will eventually produce its own space, an absolute political space. Or whether, alternatively, the nation states will one day see their absolute political space disappearing into (and thanks to) the world market.” (p. 220)
Along the way, he raises a compelling observation — that the “adoption of another people's gods always entails the adoption of their space” — that caught my eye (though I can’t tell whether it’s about absolute space or abstract space, or both):
“The adoption of another people's gods always entails the adoption of their space and system of measurement. Thus the erection of the Pantheon in Rome pointed not only to a comprehension of conquered gods but also to a comprehension of spaces now subordinate to the master space, as it were, of the Empire and the world.” (p. 111)
Now, that observation has a contemporary resonance, for it fits conflicts raging today around the world today over whose sacred or secular “gods” should dominate — making his spatiology look all the more insightful.

Next comes the rise of “abstract space” — a key thread throughout the book, yet the one I least understand, though it is obviously important. He says it is “the location and source of abstractions” (p. 348). Thus, it is part of “mental space” (see below), but not in a neutral scientific sense. For he gives it an increasingly “concrete” political edge, especially as he says it is “the space of the bourgeoisie and of capitalism” and “depends on consensus more than any space before it” (p. 57). He also treats it as an “instrumental space” manipulated by all sorts of authorities (p. 51), for it is "a tool of power" (p. 391). Indeed, in an explanation fraught with striking metaphors, he proclaims that, in our modern world, the forces behind abstract space “seem to grind down and crush everything before them, with space performing the function of a plane, a bulldozer or a tank.”
“We already know several things about abstract space. As a product of violence and war, it is political; instituted by a state, it is institutional. On first inspection it appears homogeneous; and indeed it serves those forces which make a tabula rasa of whatever stands in their way, of whatever threatens them — in short, of differences. These forces seem to grind down and crush everything before them, with space performing the function of a plane, a bulldozer or a tank.” (p. 285)
I suppose I get his point — it resembles an old idea that the agents of hegemonic ideologies depend on imposing abstract ideas (or ideational superstructures, or etc.) in ways that shape cultures and behaviors so that people submit without question. But I’m still not sure that’s what he means by “abstract space” — or how much it offers a new view of an old idea, or is even the best term. Moreover, I’m puzzled he never considers Marxism as having an abstract space.

Meanwhile, as indicated in Part 1, his vision leaves plenty of room (space!) for contradictions to arise, especially ones “which are liable eventually to precipitate the downfall of abstract space” (p. 52). Such “contradictory space” mostly arises as “counter-space” and “differential space” (p.52). This occurs following “the dissolution of old relations on the one hand and the generation of new relations on the other.”
“From a less pessimistic standpoint, it can be shown that abstract space harbours specific contradictions. Such spatial contradictions derive in part from the old contradictions thrown up by historical time. These have undergone modifications, however: some are aggravated, others blunted. Amongst them, too, completely fresh contradictions have come into being which are liable eventually to precipitate the downfall of abstract space. The reproduction of the social relations of production within this space inevitably obeys two tendencies: the dissolution of old relations on the one hand and the generation of new relations on the other. Thus, despite — or rather because of — its negativity, abstract space carries within itself the seeds of a new kind of space. I shall call that new space 'differential space', because, inasmuch as abstract space tends towards homogeneity, towards the elimination of existing differences or peculiarities, a new space cannot be born (produced) unless it accentuates differences. It will also restore unity to what abstract space breaks up - to the functions, elements and moments of social practice. It will put an end to those localizations which shatter the integrity of the individual body, the social body, the corpus of human needs, and the corpus of knowledge.” (p. 52)
As a result, he looks forward to “conflicts which foster the explosion of abstract space and the production of a space that is other.”
“The more carefully one examines space, considering it not only with the eyes, not only with the intellect, but also with all the senses, with the total body, the more clearly one becomes aware of the conflicts at work within it, conflicts which foster the explosion of abstract space and the production of a space that is other.” (p. 391)
All of which means he awaits the emergence of revolutionary strategies — new spatial codes (as discussed in Part 1) — that will lead to revolutionary transitions, based on his view that “Space is becoming the principal stake of goal-directed actions and struggles.” (p. 410)

(As indicated up front, my difficulties understanding “absolute space” and “abstract space” might ease if I ever read Chapter 4 (“From Absolute Space to Abstract Space”) and Chapter 5 (“Contradictory Space”). But after glancing at them, I don’t yet see that would help me much with further formulating STA in the future.)

And so, Lefebvre reaches far, wide, and deep in discussing the history of space and its myriad manifestations. More to the point for STA, he shows that the history of space is interlaced with the histories of time and action, such as where he observes that “the history of space should not be distanced in any way from the history of time”:
“… The history of space does not have to choose between 'processes' and 'structures', change and invariability, events and institutions. Its periodizations, moreover, will differ from generally accepted ones. Naturally, the history of space should not be distanced in any way from the history of time (a history clearly distinct from all philosophical theories of time in general). The departure point for this history of space is not to be found in geographical descriptions of natural space, but rather in the study of natural rhythms, and of the modification of those rhythms and their inscription in space by means of human actions, especially work-related actions.” (pp. 117)

Toward a science of space

Along with a history of space, Lefebvre aims to create a science of space — “a unitary theory of physical, mental, and social space” (p. 21) — that can be used to “decode” space. He even suggests calling this science “spatio-analysis” or “spatiology”:
“The theory we need, which fails to come together because the necessary critical moment does not occur, and which therefore falls back into the state of mere bits and pieces of knowledge, might well be called, by analogy, a 'unitary theory': the aim is to discover or construct a theoretical unity between 'fields' which are apprehended separately, just as molecular, electromagnetic and gravitational forces are in phvsics. The fields we are concerned with are, first, the physical — nature, the Cosmos; secondly, the mental, including logical and formal abstractions; and, thirdly, the social. In other words, we are concerned with logico-epistemological space, the space of social practice, the space occupied by sensory phenomena, including products of the imagination such as projects and projections, symbols and Utopias.” (pp. 11-12)
“Social relations, which are concrete abstractions, have no real existence save in and through space. Their underpinning is spatial. In each particular case, the connection between this underpinning and the relations it supports calls for analysis. …
“Propositions of this kind themselves imply and explain a project — namely, the quest for a knowledge at once descriptive, analytic and global. If one had to label such an endeavour, it might be termed 'spatio-analysis' or 'spatiology'.” (p. 404)
Lefebvre does not lay out a precise methodology for analyzing space and spatial orientations. He says his inquiry is exploratory. Yet he offers a vast variety of categories and distinctions. In particular, he distinguishes among physical, mental, and social spaces — what he also calls perceived, conceived, and lived spaces (p. 21, 40). He also distinguishes spatial practices, representations of space, and representational spaces from each other (p. 33). Furthermore, he observes that spaces have form, structure, and function — and may thus be subjected to formal, structural and/or functional analysis (p. 147).

These three conceptual “triads” figure throughout his book. He not only goes into detail about expressions of each one — often architectural — but also addresses whether and how they do or do not work together in particular situations. For example, here’s a quote where he uses the form-function-structure distinction to criticize bureaucracy as “the very epitome of opacity, indecipherability and 'unreadability'”:
“As for social 'realities', here the opposite situation obtains: the distances between forms, functions and structures lengthen rather than diminish. The three tend to become completely detached from one another. Their relationship is obscured and they become indecipherable (or undecodable) as the 'hidden' takes over from the 'readable' in favour of the predominance of the latter in the realm of objects. Thus a particular institution may have a variety of functions which are different - and sometimes opposed - to its apparent forms and avowed structures. One merely has to think of the institutions of 'justice', of the military, or of the police. In other words, the space of objects and the space of institutions are radically divergent in 'modern' society. This is a society in which, to take an extreme example, the bureaucracy is supposed to be, aspires to be, loudly proclaims itself to be, and perhaps even believes itself to be 'readable' and transparent, whereas in fact it is the very epitome of opacity, indecipherability and 'unreadability'. The same goes for all other state and political apparatuses.” (p. 149)
Spatiology as a way to indict bureaucracy — that’s innovative. Indeed, it’s a quote that might appeal to conservative critics of Washington nowadays. And from an Occupy perspective, be applicable to corporatist Wall Street as well as bureaucratic Washington.

His elaborations raise numerous distinctions of a geometric, architectural, geographic, or scalar nature: e.g., between center and periphery, interior and exterior, inside and outside, open and closed, hidden and visible, public and private (or mixed (p. 387)), work and non-work, micro and macro, local and global, global and fragmentary (parcelized) (p. 365), horizontal and vertical, centralized and distributed, hierarchical and networked (p. 349, 351). Other distinctions have a socio-political quality: e.g., between natural and artificial (man-made) spaces, between absolute and abstract spaces, between dominated and appropriated spaces (p. 104), between spaces that feature command from above and those that feature demand from below (p. 115), and between spaces that include and those that reject (or more commonly, do both (p. 99)).

His analysis becomes evermore intricate and illuminating as he discusses relations between spaces: Some may be separated by walls and barriers — and kept so deliberately by powers who prefer keeping spaces isolated and disassociated (e.g., public vs. private), and who use binary distinctions to confound and control people. But for the most part, he calls attention to the existence of spaces within spaces within still more spaces — how they crisscross, overlap, penetrate and interconnect, forming into networks, with blurred and even fluid boundaries, and with old spaces folded into new ones.
“Structural distinctions between binary operations, levels and dimensions must not be allowed to obscure the great dialectical movements that traverse the world-as-totality and help define it.” (p. 218)
“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.” (p. 8)
“We are confronted not by one social space but by many — indeed, by an unlimited multiplicity or uncountable set of social spaces which we refer to generically as 'social space'. No space disappears in the course of growth and development: the worldwide does not abolish the local, This is not a consequence of the law of uneven development, but a law in its own right. The intertwinement of social spaces is also a law. Considered in isolation, such spaces are mere abstractions. As concrete abstractions, however, they attain 'real' existence by virtue of networks and pathways, by virtue of bunches or clusters of relationships. …
Social spaces interpenetrate one another and/or superimpose themselves upon one another. They are not things, which have mutually limiting boundaries and which collide because of their contours or as a result of inertia.” (pp. 86-87)
Lefebvre’s approach to scientific analysis thus becomes strategic. For it spans from local to global levels, emphasizing their inseparability. And he shows how particular manifestations of his distinctions and categories get reflected in “spatial codes” that have strategic implications. Accordingly, he critiques formalized barriers and boundaries (e.g., between public and private) that are enforced by dominant spatial codes, as rulers try to keep such spaces “separated, assigned in isolated fashion … specialized” (p. 97). At the same time, he aims to identify new spatial codes that can bring “disassociated” spaces back together for revolutionary purposes (p. 64; also see my Part-1 post). In short, he often criticizes center-periphery relations (p. 149) and the “hierarchical ordering of locations” (p. 349), yet commends the spreading importance of “networks and flows” (p. 351). In retrospect, he’s a kind of early proponent of hierarchies-vs.-networks analysis.

[UPDATE — May 17, 2014: Several new quotes added, plus related text.]


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