Monday, 27 August 2012

Space/Place, Culture and Time (Part 1): Michel De Certeau

The definitions of space and place are multifarious and vary not only between fields of theory (cultural geography, urban sociology, etc) but also between individual theorists within the same field. Below I have provided the example set out by Michel De Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life. It may seem complex upon first reading it, but when you start to think about applying examples to what De Certeau describes, it becomes easier to understand. Part 2 of this blog will provide an interesting cultural example (architectural and psychoanalytical) of how the world might be if space and place were collapsed into each other.

"A place (lieu) is the order (of whatever kind) in accord with which elements are distributed in relationships of coexistence. It thus excludes the possibility of two things being in the same location (place). The law of the 'proper' rules in the place: the elements taken into consideration are beside one another, each situated in its own 'proper' and distinct locations, a location it defines. A place is thus an instantaneous configuration of positions. It implies an indication of stability.

A space exists when one takes into consideration vectors of direction, velocities, and time variables. Thus space is composed of intersections of mobile elements. It is in a sense actuated by the ensemble of movements deployed within it. Space occurs as the effect produced by the operations that orient it, situate it, temporalize it, and make it function in a polyvalent unity of conflictual programs or contractual proximities. On this view, in relations to place, space is like the word when it is spoken, that is, when it is caught in the ambiguity of an actualization, transformed into a term dependant upon many different conventions, situated as the act of a present (or of a time), and modified by the transformations caused by successive contexts. In contradistinction to the place, it has thus none of the univocity or stability of a 'proper'.

In short, space is a practiced place. Thus the street geometrically defined by urban planning is transformed into a space by walkers. In the same way, an act of reading is the space produced by the practice of a particular place: a written text, i.e., a place constituted by a system of signs."

Space/Place, Culture and Time (Part 2): Sigmund Freud

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Lefebvre, Rationality and Zoning. Part 2: Space is the most general of tools

Part 1 of this blog covered the zoning used by urban planners to rationalise space, and the cultural effects produced by that in relation to 'difference'. I also made reference to the naturalising function of this on space itself and how Louis Althusser's ideological state apparatuses theory can be applied to our individual subjectification process in this regard. Here's that blog:

Lefebvre, Rationality and Zoning. Part 2: The analytical activity that discerns differences

This blog looks at what Henri Lefebvre means by "abstract space" and then includes a paragraph of his from The Production of Space that relates to the rationality and zoning theme of these two blogs, while demonstrating its actual effects on space (urban and otherwise).

While'abstract' appears to be quite an innocuous and bland word - while at the same time having many theoretical interpretations, not least Marxian ones, which bring with it a whole load of deconstructionist baggage - for Lefebvre it has a very specific and far from insipid meaning when he applies it to one of his forms of space.

Thetypes of space Lefebvre uses are: social, absolute, abstract, contradictory, differential, etc. They can co-exist. This blog is only concerned with abstract space. I find the best way to understand abstract space is by applying some of the tenets of neoliberlism (capitalism, etc) directly to space. Therefore, if you have a general understanding of capitalism in postmodernity in regards to how it functions - e.g. homogeneity, abstraction (in the Marxian sense), the co-existence of dichotomies such as absence/presence (in other words dualities) and, say, a focus on the visual (or, if you will, the spectacle) - then you will get it. Add a bit of Baudrillard's critique of the sign in Simulacra and Simulation and you've pretty much got it nailed.

So,for Lefebvre, abstract space is perfectly able to cope with contradictions in regards to representation. It is also duplicitous - well, in fact, it is duplicitous because of this. As Lefebvre states: "it is both a result and a container". One of the cleverest tricks it employs, as discussed in the last blog, is the fudging of the apparent temporal direction in regards to cause and effect. Some of the binary oppositions it happily co-presents with absolutely no negation at all are: positive/negative, empty/full, constraining/stimulating, distance/limit, local/global, benevolent/malevolent, etc, the list is endless...

So,now you understand a bit more what abstract space is for Lefevbre, this is the paragraph I promised. Here he explains the result of abstract spaces raison d'etre:

"...absraction's modus operandi is devastation, destruction (even if such destruction may sometimes herald creation). Signs have something lethal about them - not by virtue of 'latent' or so-called unconscious forces, but, on the contrary, by virtue of the forced introduction of abstraction into nature. The violence involved does not stem from some force intervening aside from rationality, outside or beyond it. Rather, it manifests itself from the moment any action introduces the rational into the real, from the outside, by means of tools which strike, slice and cut - and keep doing so until the purpose of their aggression is achieved. For space is instrumental - indeed it is the most general of tools." (page 289)

The following two blogs relating to the cutting up of space may also be of interest:

Cutting up Space Part 1: L = S - [l + c + i = e + p]
Looks at a formula used in how land value is calculated in the marketplace.

Cutting up Space Part 2: The Laws of Form
Introduces G Spencer Brown's calculus of indications in relation to demarcating space.

Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The Production of Space, trans. by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell).

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Lefebvre, Rationality and Zoning. Part 1: The analytical activity that discerns differences

Tallahassee Land Use, USA
CC Wikimedia Commons
There's much written about the zoning used by local councils to manage and control space, which I'm not particularly going to go into here. But, being an urban aesthete I am intrigued by the control of space and the effects of that rationale on the individual. I'm also interested in how this is considered from a philosophical perspective. Here are some comments that Henri Lefebvre has made in The Production of Space on zoning. I'm going to provide a section of Lefebvre's text in full, then situate that within his discussion on "abstract space" in Part 2of this blog.

"Zoning...which is responsible - precisely - for fragmentation, break-up and separation under the umbrella of a bureaucratically decreed unity, is conflated with the rational capacity to discriminate. The assignment of functions, and the way functions are actually distributed 'on the ground', becomes indistinguishable from the kind of analytical activity that discerns differences. What is being covered up here is moral and political order: the specific power that organizes these conditions, with its specific socio-economic allegiance, seems to flow directly from the Logos - that is, from a 'consensual' embrace of the rational." (page 317)

One of the key things Lefebvre mentions here is the 'covering up' and being a psychogeographer, this is what I'm particularly interested in: what's behind the spectacle. The political decisions and administrative procedures that make space appear the way it does behind the representations, the signs, that end up manifesting themselves in space in a seemingly innocuous way, to such an extent that they appear 'natural'. Louis Althusser talks about this naturalising function in his Ideological State Apparatuses essay (which is one of my favourite texts and I'd recommend to anyone who is interested in how the individual is functionally situated as a citizen in society). Althusser explains that it is the raison d'etre of the various state apparatuses of which we partake/belong/sign-up to, that they "interpellate" us in such a way that we do not realise that we are being fixed, identified and recognised as such. But, what is crucial to Althusser, is that we don't realise this is happening to us. Althusser's clever example is of a policeman who hails someone in the street, but we turn around because we think he's hailed us (we recognise ourself in the call 'hey you there'), and in that bodily turn, and that recognition, we become interpellated by the system, by the apparatus. We take up our place as a citizen subject, this is 'natural'. In fact, and Althusser leaves this fantastic bombshell till later in the text, this happen before we are even born! (I won't explain this to you here, go read the text, it's well worth it).

Anyway, I only slightly, digress. This 'covering up' and 'naturalising' of space works in a similar way to that which I've explained by Althusser's interpellation. We situate ourselves in urban space as subjects by following its paths, accepting its rules and bylaws, and behaving like 'good' citizens. We don't question the ideological processes that take place behind it most of the time. And, even if we do on occasions complain about a 'monstrous' piece of architecture we might not like, or that new supermarket on the edge of town, on an everyday basis we are interpellated by the urban decor that controls our behaviour and that we obsequiously obey.

Moreover - and more importantly to Lefebvre here - the bureaucratic processes that hide under the veil of urban space, work in a reflexive way such that they both conceal and create the differences that are formed through the rationalising formulations actually used in, for example, zoning. We (society) creates differences, then comments on those differences like they came about all on their own. Historically they have appeared - spatially - in anything from workhouses to ghettos, with the actual forming of the differences being concealed under the 'natural order of things'.

Related posts:
Space as a Locus of Production
Louis Althusser, Ideology and the Practices of the Institution
The Power of Representation

Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The Production of Space, trans. by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell).

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Space as a Locus of Production

Henri Lefebvre's The Production of Space has some interesting hypothetical arguments that he presents as debates on issues arising in his text. One of my favourite ones is a conversation between a supposed interlocutor, who has taken a rather reductionist approach to Lefebvre's concept on the production of space, and a supporter of it. It's worth reading in its completeness, so I've included it all here:

'I am not convinced by your arguments. You talk of "producing space". What an absolutely unintelligible phrase! Even to speak of a concept in this connection would be to grant you far too much. No, there are only two possibilities here. Either space is part of nature or it is a concept. If it is part of nature, human - or "social" - activity marks it, invests it and modifies its geographical and ecological characteristics; the role of knowledge, on this reading, would be limited to the description of these changes. If space is a concept, it is as such already a part of knowledge and of mental activity, as in mathematics for example, and the job of scientific thought is to explore, elaborate upon and develop it. In neither case is there such a thing as the production of space.'

'Just a moment. The separations you are taking for granted between nature and knowledge and nature and culture are simply not valid. They are no more valid than the widely accepted "mind-matter" split. These distinctions are simply no improvement on their equally unacceptable opposite - namely, confusion. The fact is that technological activity and the scientific approach are not satisfied with simply modifying nature. They seek to master it, and in the process they tend to destroy it; and, before destroying it, they misinterpret it. This process began with the invention of tools.'

'So now you are going back to the Stone Age! Isn't that a little early?'

'Not at all. The beginning was the first premeditated act of murder; the first tool and the first weapon - both of which went hand in hand with the advent of language.'

'What you seem to be saying is that humankind emerges from nature. It can thus only understand nature from without - and it only gets to understand it by destroying it.'

'Well if one accepts the generalization "humankind" for the sake of the argument, then, yes, humankind is born in nature, emerges from nature and then turns against naature with the unfortunates results that we are now witnessing.'

'Would you say that this ravaging of nature is attributable to capitalism?'

'To a large degree, yes. But I would add the rider that capitalism and the bourgeoisie have a broad back. It is easy to attribute a multitude of misdeeds to then without addressing the question of how they themselves cam into being.'

'Surely the answer is to be found in mankind itself, in human nature?'

'No. In the nature of the Western man perhaps.'

'You man to say that you would blame the whole history of the West, its rationalism, its Logos, its very language?'

'It is the West that is responsible for the transgression of nature. It would certainly be interesting to know how and why this has come about, but those questions are strictly secondary. The simple fact is that the West has broken the bounds. "O felix culpa!" a theologian might say. And, indeed, the West is thus responsible for what Hegel calls the power of the negative, for violence, terror and permanent aggression directed against life. It has generalized and globalized violence - and forged the global level itself through that violence. Space as locus of production, as itself product and production, is both the weapon and the sign of this struggle. If it is to be carried through to the end - there is in any case no way of turning back - this gigantic task now calls for the immediate production or creation of something other than nature: a second, different or new nature, so to speak. This means the production of space, urban space, both as product and as work, in the sense in which art created works. If this project fails, the failure will be total, and the consequences of that are impossible to foresee.' (page 108-110)



Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The Production of Space, trans. by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell).