Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Reading with STA in mind: Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space (1st of 3)

The framework I’d like to see developed about people's space-time-action orientations (aka STA) continues to have plenty of potential. I’ve written a few posts about it — after all, STA is one of this blog’s two themes. But STA’s potential remains largely unrealized, mainly because I’ve lagged in working on it.

In order to keep STA on track and add a bit of momentum, here is a series of posts (possibly followed by more) built around selected literature reviews. This first post reviews a classic book about social space. Second will be a book about social time. Third will be a book or other writings about the action/agency orientation.

These posts are not so much about the books themselves as about a particular purpose that serves STA: to show that each writing, besides dwelling on its avowed focus (be that space, time, or action), turns to say something about all three STA orientations. Indeed, there is no way for major writings to avoid doing so.

I don’t claim that these writings would be better if they had gone in comprehensive STA-like directions. But I do claim these writings help confirm that space, time, and action orientations operate as a bundle — a set of interrelated cognitive-knowledge elements that no mind and no culture can do without. And I want to urge that you too begin to see so too.

As for this review about Lefebvre’s book, once again I’ve set out to do a single post, and it has morphed into a multi-parter, laden with long quotes. This Part 1 provides a general overview. Part 2 will lay out how Lefebvre analyzes space, Part 3 how he includes time and action orientations. These will be followed by serendipitous posts that will collate and comment on gleanings I happened to notice around the blogosphere and elsewhere while I had Lefebvre in mind.

Highlights of this Part-1 post include his analytical concepts about spatiology, spatial codes, spatial chaos, and trial by space, plus his proposition that the creation and control of social space is the crucial stake in today’s revolutionary struggles and evolutionary transitions.

The book’s significance and argument

French philosopher/sociologist Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space ([1974] 1991) remains a seminal landmark text among postmodern social and literary theorists, philosophers, and sociologists who are caught up in the “spatial turn” in theorizing that began a few decades ago. The book has been a favorite especially among Marxists and anarchists looking for postmodern ways to analyze and strategize about the world. Though he was a controversial and marginal figure during much of his life, his stature and influence have grown hugely since his death in 1991. Those influenced by this book include not only social theorists like Michel Foucault and Manuel Castells, but also young activists who supported Occupy and other pro-democracy movements a few years ago (as discussed here).

As I understand the book, Lefebvre proposes that “space” — particularly “social space” — is not only a cardinal concept that merits far more attention from theorists and strategists, but also that “the production of space” — all kinds of spaces — has become a paramount activity in (and of) advanced societies. Indeed, says he, producing spaces is now a more defining activity of capitalism than producing commodities. Thus Lefebvre is not merely advocating space as a grand analytical concept; he’s forecasting that societies are moving into an era when producing and dominating space is a strategic purpose. Accordingly, a spatial revolution is underway that will subsume the urban revolution, just as it subsumed the earlier industrial and agrarian revolutions (p. 419).

To make his case, Lefebvre maintains that all across history — and now more than before — every work, thing, product, institution, society, market, whatever, operates to generate a social space. This applies to bodies, buildings, companies, towns, cities, states, and markets, as well as to nationalism, capitalism, and other ideologies. Accordingly,
“[E]very society — and hence every mode of production with its subvariants (i.e. all those societies which exemplify the general concept — produces a space, it's own space.” (p. 31)
“The ‘object’ of interest must be expected to shift from things in space to the actual production of space.” (p. 37)
“It is impossible, in fact, to avoid the conclusion that space is assuming an increasingly important role in supposedly 'modern' societies, and that if this role is not already preponderant it very soon will be. Space's hegemony does not operate solely on the 'micro' level, effecting the arrangement of surfaces in a supermarket, for instance, or in a 'neighbourhood' of housing-units; nor does it apply only on the 'macro' level, as though it were responsible merely for the ordering of 'flows' within nations or continents. On the contrary, its effects may be observed on all planes and in all the interconnections between them.” (p. 412)
In this view, space is not simply an empty container, an area or a volume. Social spaces are themselves works, products, and tools, as well as means of production — all at the same time. Thus, what's needed is “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).
“(Social) space is not a thing among other things, nor a product among other products: rather, it subsumes things produced, and encompasses their interrelationships in their coexistence and simultaneity — their (relative) order and/or (relative) disorder. It is the outcome of a sequence and set of operations, and thus cannot be reduced to the rank of a simple object. … Itself the outcome of past actions, social space is what permits fresh actions to occur, while suggesting others and prohibiting yet others.” (p. 73)
“Is space indeed a medium? A milieu? An intermediary? It is doubtless all of these, but its role is less and less neutral, more and more active, both as instrument and as goal, as means and as end.” (p. 411)
Lefebvre is thus precociously network-oriented for 1974. For he is keen to show that networks and flows that link and embed things (objects, subjects) are generally more significant than the things themselves:
“Social space contains a great diversity of objects, both natural and social, including the networks and pathways which facilitate the exchange of material things and information. Such 'objects' are thus not only things but also relations.” (p 77)
“[A] space is not a thing but rather a set of relations between things (objects and products).” (p. 83)
“The state and each of its constituent institutions call for spaces — but spaces which they can then organize according to their specific requirements; … Though a product to be used, to be consumed, it is also a means of production; networks of exchange and flows of raw materials and energy fashion space and are determined by it.” (p. 85)
“As it develops, then, the concept of social space becomes broader. It infiltrates, even invades, the concept of production, becoming part — perhaps the essential part — of its content.” (p. 85)
Lefebvre especially viewed capitalism as being networked in concrete, space-filling, space-defining ways. Accordingly, networks amount to the “material underpinning of the world of commodities” — indeed, of capitalism in general — since “The world of commodities would have no 'reality' without such moorings or points of insertion, or without their existing as an ensemble.” (p. 404) Here’s the full quote:
“As for the commodity in general, it is obvious that kilograms of sugar, sacks of coffee beans and metres of fabric cannot do duty as the material underpinning of its existence. The stores and warehouses where these things are kept, where they wait, the ships, trains and trucks that transport them - and hence the routes used - have also to be taken into account. Furthermore, having considered all these objects individually, one still has not properly apprehended the material underpinning of the world of commodities. … It has to be remembered that these objects constitute relatively determinate networks or chains of exchange within a space. The world of commodities would have no 'reality' without such moorings or points of insertion, or without their existing as an ensemble. The same may be said of banks and banking-networks vis-à-vis the capital market and money transfers, and hence vis-à-vis the comparison and balancing of profits and the distribution of surplus value.” (p. 404)
Much of his writing is imbued with the language of Marxist concepts and objectives. I try to slide over it, in order to get at points I like regarding how to analyze spatial orientations, and where he fits time and action orientations into his framework. Yet he notes that his emphasis on space implies ways of thinking and strategizing that pose a serious conceptual challenge for classical Marxism:
“Ideology per se might well be said to consist primarily in a discourse upon social space.” (p. 44)
“If the production of space does indeed correspond to a leap forward in the productive forces (in technology, in knowledge, in the domination of nature), and if therefore this tendency, when pushed to its limit — or, better, when it has overcome its limits — must eventually give rise to a new mode of production which is neither state capitalism nor state socialism, but the collective management of space, the social management of nature, and the transcendence of the contradiction between nature and anti-nature, then clearly we cannot rely solely on the application of the 'classical' categories of Marxist thought.” (pp. 102–103)
“Meanwhile, it is thanks only to the notion of a conflict-laden transition from one mode of production (that of things) to another (that of space) that it is possible to preserve the Marxist thesis of the fundamental role of the forces of production while at the same time liberating this thesis from the ideology of productivity and from the dogma of (quantitative) growth. …
“Space is becoming the principal stake of goal-directed actions and struggles.” (p. 410)

From theory to practice: spatial codes, spatial chaos, trial by space, a strategic hypothesis based on space, and the collective management of space

Against this background, Lefebvre clarifies that his concern is not only with how to analyze space (as discussed further in Part 2), but also how to think about radical change and discern a new “project” for achieving it:
“This book has been informed from beginning to end by a project, though this may at times have been discernible only by reading between the lines. I refer to the project of a different society, a different mode of production, where social practice would be governed by different conceptual determinations.” (p. 419)
Thus Lefebvre focuses on how knowledge and power may serve “hegemony” and how it then utilizes space. Indeed, he says, “The state is consolidating on a world scale” to a degree that “weighs down on society” and “crushes time” (p. 23). Accordingly, the production of space has become a means of control, if not domination, particularly for state capitalism — yet in contradictory ways that may create possibilities for eventual revolutionary change from below:
“[T]his state, born of the hegemony of a class, has as one of its functions — and a more and more significant function — the organization of space, the regularization of its flows, the control of its networks.” (p. 383)
(Social) space is a (social) product. … Many people, finding this claim paradoxical, will want proof. The more so in view of the further claim that the space thus produced also serves as a tool of thought and of action; that in addition to being a means of production it is also a means of control, and hence of domination, of power; yet that, as such, it escapes in part from those who would make use of it.” (p. 26)
What’s important, then, for both analytical and strategic purposes, is to figure out how to read space — how to “decode” space and identify the “spatial codes” that actors use. In particular, he observes that “The ideologically dominant tendency divides space up into parts and parcels” (p. 89); it works to separate all sorts of spaces from each other (e.g., public and private) and treats each as a “passive receptacle” (p. 90).

The way to counter this tendency is to construct a contrary code that will “recapture the unity of dissociated elements”:
“The reconstruction of a spatial 'code' — that is, of a language common to practice and theory, as also to inhabitants, architects and scientists — may be considered from the practical point of view to be an immediate task. The first thing such a code would do is recapture the unity of dissociated elements, breaking down such barriers as that between private and public, and identifying both confluences and oppositions in space that are at present indiscernible. It would thus bring together levels and terms which are isolated by existing spatial practice and by the ideologies underpinning it: … .” (p. 64)
Thus he shows that space is stake both for “the oppressors” who would impose their spatial codes, and for radicals who seek reform or revolution. And what’s emerging, as a result of state behavior is “a spatial chaos” — quite a concept!— from local to global levels:
“The combined result of a very strong political hegemony, a surge in the forces of production, and an inadequate control of markets, is a spatial chaos experienced at the most parochial level just as on a worldwide scale. The bourgeoisie and the capitalist system thus experience great difficulty in mastering what is at once their product and the tool of their mastery, namely space. They find themselves unable to reduce practice (the practicosensory realm, the body, social-spatial practice) to their abstract space, and hence new, spatial, contradictions arise and make themselves felt. Might not the spatial chaos engendered by capitalism, despite the power and rationality of the state, turn out to be the system's Achilles' heel?” (p.63)
To oppose this system and benefit from spatial chaos, Lefebvre recommends a new “strategic hypothesis based on space” that, he reiterates again, would bring “disassociated aspects” back together, in both theory and practice:
“[I]ts basic principle and objective is the bringing-together of dissociated aspects, the unification of disparate tendencies and factors. Inasmuch as it tries to take the planetary experiment in which humanity is engaged for what it is - that is to say, a series of separate and distinct assays of the world's space - this hypothesis sets itself up in clear opposition to the homogenizing efforts of the state, of political power, of the world market, and of the commodity world … It implies the mobilization of differences in a single movement”. (p. 64)
Where all this strategizing eventually leads is to “trial by space” — a powerful point that verges on being apocalyptic, because “no one can avoid trial by space - an ordeal which is the modern world's answer to the judgement of God or the classical conception of fate.” Or, as he elaborates more fully, in a passage I consider poetically articulate and insightful,
“Today everything that derives from history and from historical time must undergo a test. Neither 'cultures' nor the 'consciousness' of peoples, groups or even individuals can escape the loss of identity that is now added to all other besetting terrors. Points and systems of reference inherited from the past are in dissolution. Values, whether or not they have been organized into more or less coherent 'systems', crumble and clash. Sooner or later, the cultivated elites find themselves in the same situation as peoples dispossessed (alienated) through conquest and colonization. These elites find that they have lost their bearings. Why? Because nothing and no one can avoid trial by space - an ordeal which is the modern world's answer to the judgement of God or the classical conception of fate. It is in space, on a worldwide scale, that each idea of 'value' acquires or loses its distinctiveness through confrontation with the other values and ideas that it encounters there. Moreover - and more importantly - groups, classes or fractions of classes cannot constitute themselves, or recognize one another, as 'subjects' unless they generate (or produce) a space. Ideas, representations or values which do not succeed in making their mark on space, and thus generating (or producing) an appropriate morphology, will lose all pith and become mere signs, resolve themselves into abstract descriptions, or mutate into fantasies.” (pp. 416–417)
As Lefebvre keeps pushing on his two key strategic points — reuniting disassociated spaces and generating bottom-up pluralism — he notes the advisability of creating local self-managed autonomous zones outside the control of the state and its attendant networks:
“The only possibility of so altering the operation of the centralized state as to introduce (or reintroduce) a measure of pluralism lies in a challenge to central power from the 'local powers', in the capacity for action of municipal or regional forces linked directly to the territory in question. Inevitably such resistance or counter-action will tend to strengthen or create independent territorial entities capable to some degree of self-management.” (p. 382)
Finally, he addresses “the first and last question”: “How does the theory of space relate to the revolutionary movement as it exists today?” To answer, he contrasts the Soviet and Chinese approaches to space under communism — showing the former to be deeply centralized, the latter more distributed.From this he concludes that “the theory of space is capable of accounting for revolutionary experience worldwide.” And what he hopes for ideally is “The creation (or production) of a planet-wide space as the social foundation of a transformed everyday life open to myriad possibilities — such is the dawn now beginning to break on the far horizon.” (pp. 420-422)

That’s an ambitious agenda. But it’s consistent with a proposition he poses early in his book: “A revolution that does not produce a new space has not realized its full potential” (p. 54). And what he wants from such a revolution is a new system — a new space — characterized not by state capitalism or state socialism but by the “collective management of space” (pp. 102-103). It’s far from clear what he means by that phrase, but it’s not what Marxists have usually sought:
“Since, ex bypothesi, each mode of production has its own particular space, the shift from one mode to another must entail the production of a new space.” (p. 46)
“Revolution was long defined either in terms of a political change at the level of the state or else in terms of the collective or state ownership of the means of production as such (plant, equipment, industrial or agricultural entities). Under either of these definitions, revolution was understood to imply the rational organization of production and the equally rationalized management of society as a whole. In fact, however, both the theory and the project involved here have degenerated into an ideology of growth which, if it is not actually aligned with bourgeois ideology, is closely akin to it.
“Today such limited definitions of revolution no longer suffice. The transformation of society presupposes a collective ownership and management of space founded on the permanent participation of the 'interested parties', with their multiple, varied and even contradictory interests.(p. 422)
That sounds a bit like P2P theory (but not TIMN).

Closing comment

What Lefebvre theorized about social space is illuminating and impressive. It even appears to prefigure much that I read today in complexity theory, social network analysis, actor-network theory, and general systems theory, not to mention global interdependence and world systems theories — all quite remarkable given that he wrote the book in 1974. This will become more evident in Parts 2 and 3.

Building on what’s discussed above, Lefebvre proposes to develop a history and a science of space. That’s what Part 2 will be about. Along the way, he also says a lot about time, and a little about action — all apropos my STA interests. That’s what Part 3 will be about.

- - - - - -

Side notes

The book contains several notions that look interesting, but that I do not understand. One is his concept of “abstract space” — as I will elaborate in Part 2. Another is his point that “Every space is already in place before the appearance in it of actors” (p. 57). I don’t get that at all, not even after re-reading the passage.

Lefebvre offers a fascinating discussion (pp. 152–158) between an Asian/Buddhist and a Westerner about their contrasting approaches to form, structure, and function — with the Buddhist seeming more attuned to network perspectives. I mention this because the next book I’ll review — Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd’s The Time Paradox (2008) — contains a discussion between an Asian and an American about their contrasting approaches to time. Comparing the two discussions is more than I can do at this point; but it’d be illuminating for somebody to do, if it hasn’t already been done. A further reference point to include might be Richard Nisbett’s The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently ... and Why (2004). [UPDATE: For a stimulating summary and review of Nisbett’s book by blogger T. Greer, go here.]

Main sources for this post

This post is based on reading Lefebvre’s book, but not in its entirety. I found what I wanted mostly by reading Chapters 1, 2, and 7. I barely browsed Chapters 3–6 (and hope I didn’t miss anything crucial). The text is online here. The Wikipedia article about Lefebvre is here.


[UPDATE — April 29, 2014: I've made edits to reflect a change in my organization of this series.]

[UPDATE — May 17, 2014: Further edits, mostly to add two new quotes and related text.]


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