102: Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space

Lefebvre was one of the very first orals books I read.  My notes from a year ago: 


Henri Lefebvre’s vast, multifaceted The Production of Space could probably be said to advance any number of arguments, but I think his most compelling argument is the one that brings space and knowledge into a classical Marxist framework: capitalist Western society is moving from the production of things in space to the production of space itself, which means that capitalist powers are increasing their hold and surveillance on ordinary people (aka space is now shaping the working class).  However, all is not lost: no matter how much they try, the people who build and shape “dominant” space and employ the working class can’t squeeze the working class out of existence or keep them from “appropriating” and shaping space to suit their own needs, nor can they make the world a completely visual, timeless, ideological construct.  Regular people have bodies, and we live in specific places at specific historical moments, and we shape those places (yeah, I said places, not spaces) into unique, historical “works of art” that contrast with the partially commodified built environment constructed by the ruling class.  To say that capitalism has moved beyond the product to space itself is to argue for both an increasing attempt at totalizing control of society through space AND increased resistance from the people who live in, experience, and shape that space – with the potential for a socialist revolution where appropriated spaces based on the human body/lived experience and use-value take precedence over dominant, visual spaces and exchange-value.


Things he does well: Lefebvre is working primarily within Philosophy, though he declares several times that he wants to abolish disciplinary divides and develop a unitary theory of space that everyone can use.  Somewhat like de Certeau, Lefebvre is trying to find a way to go from structuralism – particularly Barthes’ semiology – to a decentered, poststructuralist conception of space and social formations.  Unlike de Certeau, however, Lefebvre is working explicitly within the Marxist tradition, so I might say he’s going for more of a Marxist – post Marxist transition.  His additions to Barthes are a) the body and b) power.  He follows the “critical” approach of classical Marxists in that his writing is part descriptive (dissection of current conditions), and part prescriptive (showing how to get from here to the revolution!), but he relies heavily on Deleuze (who I never realized was actually using Hegelian terminology until just now, but hey), especially regarding the general and the particular and the whole bit on difference and repetition in the construction of space.  He emphasizes production and processes and the movement made possible by the dialectic.  I think his big takeaways are: the distinction between dominant and appropriated space/ the idea that space both shapes and is shaped by social relations, particularly the relations of production; the emphasis on the (fleshly) body, spatial practice, and lived experience instead of a mental, primarily visual space; the tendency for capitalism to want to create as homogenized, timeless, placeless a surface as possible and the ability for embodied users to create unique places by giving spaces a history (i.e., by putting them in time); that space is to language as base is to superstructure (i.e., fuck the discursive plane); and the tension between local places (that operate via dialectics and power) and global capitalist networks – not world-systems, mind you, but networks – that operate within triads, especially the capitalist one of land, labour, and capital, aka rent, wages, and profit. (228)  Social struggle is spatial struggle; no space can exist apart from ideology/ particular social structures. 

Things I didn’t like so much: Ok, I realize he’s doing some important work by arguing against a conception of space as a coherent entity (hence hegemony, which allows him a good deal of messiness and gets him out of the trap of totalization), and sure, the form of your work (particularly when you’re engaging with theories of language) is implicit in your overall argument, but writing in such a fragmented, repetitive, circular way does no one any favors.  Also he is hella intense with the Marxism, which aside from being annoyingly polemical is theoretically problematic: he has a hard time integrating a basically deterministic, systematic, rational, Enlightenment mode of analysis with the “fleshly body” and with global capitalism – he ends up creating a zillion dialectics and triads and shaping them into a network, which, sure, is probably how the world works, but despite his insistence that it’s not reductive – it’s reductive.  Even with the messiness and the insistence that the class struggle no longer has a terrain or clear boundaries, it’s still neat and discrete.  Finally, despite insisting that disciplines should not get in the way of a theory of space, he primarily locates himself within philosophy.  This wouldn’t be so bad, except that, again, it gets in the way of his insistence on lived experience and physical, human space as the base upon which the superstructure of language and interpretation is built: as a philosopher, he argues that concepts (the concept of space, for instance) are foundational, rather than lived experience.  While I think he’s right to suggest that psychoanalysis might help him out of this quandry (it would link up nicely with his sensing-thinking-social triad), he doesn’t have much psychoanalysis in here.  He has Lacan, but Freud?  Zizek?  (Was Zizek after him?) 

Some connections: David Harvey’s post-Marxism is all over this book.  Lefebvre is obviously widely-read in his field, and engages easily with Foucault, Hegel, Marx (a lot), just to name a few.  He engages particularly with Deleuze, whose “body without organs,” “difference and repetition,” distinction between the singular and the general, and construction of a decentered (social?) field infuse Lefebvre’s thinking throughout, sometimes provoking him (fragmented bodies without organs drive him nuts!) sometimes sustaining him (the decentered field underpins his theory of global capitalism.)  He also, particularly in the conclusion, engages with the world-systems theorists, arguing that constructing the world in terms of flows and systems a) completely disregards the roads, objects, trucks, cities, trains, boats, political issues, etc., that create a global capitalist network (true) and b) is falsely totalizing because c) it completely ignores the embodied, lived experience (and agentive potential) of the working class AND d) it also disregards Gramsci’s theory of hegemony.  He thus paves the way for more nuanced interpretations of the global capitalist system.

And before I go, here is Lefebvre’s “conceptual triad of space:” 

1.     Spatial practice: production and/or reproduction in a particular place within a particular social formation
2.     Representations OF space: these are tied to the relations of production social order they produce.  They are historically contingent, and they mix understanding and ideology, so they are both political and coherent.  They operate in opposition to lived, historical space and are articulated with power.  They include knowledge, signs, codes; official space; rational, legible space; dominant or dominated space; architecture; part work, part product; more abstract space.
3.     Representational space embodies complex symbolisms, clandestine, underground, social life;  it is associated with lived experience, the body, the symbolic and non-verbal; it is living, not coherent; it works only, not necessarily leaving a record in the built environment; and it is underpinned by historical space.

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