Monday, 16 May 2011

The Overdetermination of the Space of the University

An event or a thing at a point in space cannot be understood by appeal to what exists only at that point. It depends on everything else going on around it [...] A wide variety of disparate influences swirling over space in the past, present and future concentrate and congeal at a certain point [...] to define the nature of that point. (Harvey 2006: 124)
Space is fundamental in any form of communal life; space is fundamental in any exercise of power. (Foucault 1991: 252)

Whichever mode of space we are discussing (abstract, virtual, concrete - might be one form of categorisation) it is difficult to separate it from other forms in the same way that it is impossible to talk about space without also discussing those processes involved in them. One factor that is concurrent in those different spaces is us, and our experience of those spaces is influenced by a multiple of factors. Since modernity space has been transformed in relation to the lived experience. In his 1903 essay 'The Metropolis and Mental Life' Georg Simmel presents us with a representation of the individual's internal life in response to the modern city. He discusses the acceleration of pace and the collapse of space-time resulting in the “intensification of nervous stimulation” (2004: 132). Postmodernity brought with it an even more complex response to space, as discussed by cultural theorists such as Frederic Jameson in Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), where he calls for a new cognitive map to help the individual negotiate the postmodern terrain. The spaces we occupy in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century are so complex that new words have been invented to enable us to even discuss them, such as: hyperreality (Jean Baudrillard and others), non-place (Marc Augé), heterotopias (Michel Foucault), to name but a few. Therefore, space is not only overdetermined because of the many different groups of individuals who operate in these spaces and, hence, have a different aesthetic of them, but also because of the multiple ways of analysing space.

Theoretical approaches to space occur in many fields of academia, even if we just choose to analyse concrete space as it appears in the urban environment. Urban space can be critiqued from multifarious fields such as sociology, geography, cultural theory architecture, urban planning and even psychology, and within those fields there are many different approaches. The term 'urban space' will be defined differently depending on the particular field of analysis. For example, in his text aptly named Urban Space the urban designer and architect Rob Krier describes it thus: "If we wish to clarify the concept of urban space without imposing aesthetic criteria, we are compelled to designate all types of space between buildings in towns and cities and other localities as urban space." (1979: 15) Two important factors become apparent from this definition, the first is this: because Krier is bracketing the aesthetic, this demonstrates how significant it is to any discussion of urban space. Secondly: it is difficult to talk about urban space without also talking about the city (or the town, or even suburbia).

Henri Lefebvre's socio-philosophical synthesis of real and mental space in his book The Production of Space (1974) presents us with one of the most significant texts on space. It is rare to read a subsequent work about space without it referring to Lefebvre's text. The Production of Space has influenced David Harvey, Edward Soja and Manuel Castells; Castells book The Urban Question (1977) being a criticism of Lefebvre's Marxist-Humanist approach. Lefebvre categorises his formulation for analysing space by using the following terms: "Spatial practice" (the space that society utilises for the purposes of both work and leisure, and the praxis involved in these relationships), "Representations of space" (how space is defined and represented by the various dominant agents in society) and "Representational space" (a response to how space is lived through the various signs that represent it, this includes dominant images of space but also the possibility for other more inventive representations) (1991: 38-39). In his homage to Raymond Williams, the Marxist geography David Harvey offers us another approach to looking at space. In his essay 'Space as a Keyword', Harvey breaks down space into absolute, relative and relational. He explains that absolute space "is the space of Newton and Descartes and it is usually represented as a pre-existing and immovable grid amenable to standardized measurement and open to calculation" (2006: 121). Relative space allows for "multiple geometries" and can be approached in a multitude of ways depending on who and what are being investigated, the Einsteinian conceptualisation (Harvey 2006: 121-122). And relational space, which Harvey attributes to Leibniz, states that "there is no such thing as space or time outside of the processes that define them" (2006: 123). Both of these frameworks allow for methods of categorising space that highlight a space that can appear at once dominant or rigid, but also subjective or fluid, allowing room for negotiation or even appropriation.

In their essay 'Postmodern Urbanism' (1998) Michael Dear and Steven Flusty cover the discourses attached to the two most influential schools of urbanism in the US: The Chicago School, which appeared in the 1920s and 30s, and the Los Angeles School which emerged in the 1980s. They explain that the model of the city adopted by the Chicago School is one of concentrism with a view of the city that is organised around a central hub (1998: 65). The Los Angeles school, with its postmodern approach to the city (its main case study being Los Angeles itself), sees a break with the traditional concept of the city described above. It prefers to view the city as "fragmented parcels [...] within the collective world city" (ibid.). Dear and Flusty provide an interesting list of adjectives associated with Flusty's own work on city space, such as: "stealthy", "slippery", "crusty", "prickly" and "jittery" (1998: 57), demonstrating a complex aesthetic response to the space we occupy in present times.

While Krier's definition of urban space intentionally excludes the aesthetic and subjective, when discussing urban space in my thesis I shall be concentrating on these aspects. This individualised response would lend itself to the relative approach mentioned by Harvey: it depends on who or where you are as to how that space (time) appears. However, the mode of space I intend to be challenging is the one that 'appears' as absolute and unquestionable, the one that Debord would put down to the project of the capitalism, the spectacle. Nevertheless, because the appearance of space-time has internal to it various processes, which indeed cannot be separated from it, then the relational view takes those processes into account: "external influences get internalized in specific processes or things through time". (Harvey 2006: 124) At the university these processes can be spatially observed, not only in the more obvious physical movement of staff and students covering the campus terrain, but they are also actualised in both the actions taken up by the various actors at the university (for example, in taking up a practice of completing an administrative process) and in the concrete form of the buildings, or other campus phenomena, that support these processes. Therefore, Harvey's formulation of space, with its geographical critique of capital accumulation provides a useful springboard into a critique of postmodern space and "relational aesthetics". This term can be attributed to Nicolas Bourriaud, based on his text Relational Aesthetics (1998). It refers to a response to art (predominantly from the 1990s) which not only emphasises the social nature of the lived experience, but that also draws the viewer into the work as participator. One of his definitions is: “art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space”. (2002: 14) The conceptual artists that interest Bourriaud are concerned with changing the more traditional position of the gallery visitor as 'beholder' to one of an interactive process. Very often the works Bourriaud discusses do not even take place in a gallery setting but in everyday social space. In his book, Bourriaud also uses the theory of Guattari to discuss relational public art.

Above I have provided two different ways of examining space from two different (although not inseparable) fields of theory. My own theoretical analysis will include theory from both postmodern geography/urbanism and also the work Harvey has done in regard to how capital contributes to formulating our landscape. It is also the case that the processual and relational factors that influence space (and that are influenced by space in return) can be related to the work Guattari has done in the area of "molecular revolution". Guattari explains that it is possible for individuals to not be reliant on "the spatio-temporal specifications of the social phantasy". (1984: 97) In other words, the representations of the university - which also includes how it appears in space - while they may be encouraging a certain semiotic (in the case of the examination under way here, a capitalist-oriented one), can also enable a different aesthetic paradigm through differing connections and alternative existential territories. Guattari explains that this occurs when moments are no longer ideologically cloaked but become a "nucleus for processual relay"(1995: 105-106). Changing one's position, either physically or mentally, might encourage a shift away from the dominant aesthetic, to what Guattari would describe as "access to a-signifying nuclei of subjectivation” (1995: 68).

Foucault's own analysis of space, which is apparent in much of his work, including The Order of Things (1966) and Discipline and Punish (1975) - becomes inseparable from other factors in his interview with Paul Rabinow 'Space, Knowledge, and Power'. As discussed in Discipline and Punish, fields of surveillance are spatially manifest: operations and procedures applied to the body-politic take place in material structures that appear in the concrete form of the institution, whether it is a prison, a mental institution or a university. The authority attached to these procedures (and hence these structures) come in the form of statements that become naturalised upon being repeated by not only those designated to do so, but also they become legitimised by being taken up into larger groups. In ‘Truth and Power’ Foucault explains how the individual is under the influence of various propagated discourses that exist in the environment under the aegis of ‘truth’. He states: “‘Truth’ is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and operation of statements.” (1980: 133). These very statements, exist in their moment of utterance, defined by their enunciative domain and materialised by their particular formalised mode of power. Statements are supported in the structures of particular institutions through the practices that reaffirm them and in the discourse transmitted by them, they are also delineated in the images that represent them.

Bourriaud, Nicolas. 2002. Relational Aesthetics, trans. by Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods (Dijon: Le presses du réel).
Dear, Michael and Steven Flusty. 'Postmodern Urbanism', Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 88, 1 (1998), 50-72.
Foucault, Michel. 1980. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, ed. by Colin Gordon, trans. by Colin Gordon, Leo Marshall, John Mepham and Kate Soper (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Press).
Foucault, Michel. 1991. 'Space, Knowledge, and Power', The Foucault Reader, ed. by Paul Rabinow (London: Penguin). pp. 239-256.
Foucault, Michel. 2001. 'Of Other Spaces', The Visual Culture Reader, ed. by Nicholas Mirzooeff (London and New York: Routledge). pp. 237-244.
Guattari, Félix. 1984. Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics, trans. by Rosemary Sheed (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books).
----- 1995. Chaosmosis: An ethico-aesthetic paradigm, trans. by Paul Bains and Julian Pefanis (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press).
Harvey, David. 2006. Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development (London and New York: Verso).
Krier, Rob. 1979. Urban Space (London: Academy Editions).
Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The Production of Space, trans. by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell).
Simmel, Georg. 2004. ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’, Art in Theory – 1900-2000, ed. by Charles Harrison & Paul Wood (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing) pp. 132-136.

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