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Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space

by Sirma Altun on December 6, 2018
Past & Present

What is the unitary theory of space that is awaiting to be discovered in The Production of Space?

“Intellectual labour, like material labour, is subject to endless division”, Lefebvre says. “The aim is to discover or construct theoretical unity between ‘fields’ which are apprehended separately, just as molecular, electromagnetic and gravitational forces in physics. 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”. Perhaps Lefebvre’s unitary theory calls for people from all walks of science to sit around a table and talk about space in its broader form: human beings aiming to become inter-planetary, new discoveries on quantum physics and artificial intelligence, and a critical rethinking of the spaces we have produced throughout human history.

It is hard to be a student of political economy and not think about a political economy of space (as Henri Lefebvre puts it) or spatial political economy (as Frank Stilwell puts it). More importantly, what is happening in urban space in front of our eyes, the things happening here and now, that keep us questioning the role of space within contemporary capitalism? These are the very same things that leave us hanging between important life decisions: do we have anything else to lose other than our possibility of buying a house in exchange for a life-long mortgage? Or should we fight for our “right to the city” against intensified privatisation, policing and the surveillance of urban space?

How can one review a book of more than 400 pages that is full of sophisticated philosophical-theoretical discussions on space, taking the reader to a long historical journey from Ancient Greek Temples to Roman villas, from the rise of medieval towns to the capitalist world of phallic skyscrapers, “bearing the heavy cargo of myth”? Once you start reading, you realise that The Production of Space should be read as production of spaces, as Lefebvre talks about many of them: social space, spatial practice, representations of space, representational spaces, absolute space, abstract space, dominated space, appropriated space, organic space, differential space, to name a few. Yet, the complexity of Lefebvre’s spatial theory does not only lie in the multiple forms of space that he conceptualizes. What is more, the relationship between time and space, or to be more accurate, “different but inseparable” space-time lies fundamentally at the heart of his spatial exploration. Lefebvre says, “No space ever vanishes utterly, leaving no trace” and “in space, what came earlier continues to underpin what follows”. Nevertheless, “what is it that a buyer acquires when he [sic] purchases a space? The answer is time.”.

In view of the complexity of his arguments, my approach here is to ask questions to Lefebvre through The Production of Space, particularly one question which I find very crucial: What do you tell us about spatial contradictions and counter-spatial imaginations in the age of contemporary capitalism? This question keeps me focused on one spatial concept among many, counter-space. To understand what counter-space stands for, I must first comprehend the nature of space that the capitalist mode of production produces. That, of course, brings me to one of Lefebvre’s widely referred concepts, abstract space. “Capitalism and neocapitalism have produced abstract space, which includes the ‘world of commodities’, its ‘logic’ and its worldwide strategies, as well as the power of money and that of the political state”, Lefebvre says. The Production of Space reads the production of abstract space as constitutive of the capitalist mode of production. What is produced is the space of exchange. At the same time, a political space is instituted by state. It is a medium of exchange that serves politically as a “space of state domination and of military violence”. But how? By absorbing use value and favouring homogenisation over appropriation; interchangeability over difference; repetitiveness over lived time; visual over sensual experience. Furthermore, abstract space has been dominated by geographical, mental and social centrality, all produced by the capitalist mode of production. Centrality is functional for the reproduction of capitalist relations of production to the extent that it pursues totality. “It lays the claim, implicitly or explicitly, to a superior political rationality (a state or ‘urban’ rationality . . . a centrality of this order expels all peripheral elements with a violence that is inherent in space itself . . . the centre continues effectively to concentrate wealth, means of action, knowledge, information and ‘culture’”.

Equipped with homogenisation, interchangeability and centrality, abstract space seems to be loyally in service of the capitalist mode of production. Still, it is not exempted from contradictions. Lefebvre strives to reveal the contradictions of abstract space through dialectics, which he describes as “the theory of contradictions”. “Socio-political contradictions are realised spatially. The contradictions of space thus make the contradictions of social relations operative . . . It is only in space that such contradictions come effectively into play, and in so doing they become the contradictions of space”. The principle contradiction characterising abstract space can be found between spatial homogeneity and interchangeability, between the global scale and the actual fragmentation and multiplicity of local spaces, behind its fully coherent appearance. From this principle contradiction springs the notion of counter-spaces, those that run counter against the grain of established strategies of power. “What runs counter to a society founded on exchange is a primacy of use. What counters quantity is quality”, Lefebvre says. An expression of grassroots opposition to abstract space and its hegemonic representations, counter-spaces embody “counter-plans and counter-projects designed to thwart strategies, plans and programs imposed from above”. Hence, counter-spaces target the state, the primary organiser of space, and the struggle between dominant state space and counter-spaces takes place in the urban sphere.

Why are counter-spaces important? Because social transformation needs to be spatial. To borrow from Gramsci, the war of manoeuver and the war of position, as strategies of change, must be employed spatially. Struggle for change has always been spatial and space has always been a zone for social struggles. As Lefebvre puts it, “‘Change life! Change society!’. These precepts mean nothing without the production of an appropriated space”.

Sirma Altun
Sirma Altun is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. Her research interests lie in the political economy of contemporary China, specifically in social welfare transformation and urban poverty. She is also interested in looking at the question of hegemony in China from a critical socio-spatial perspective.

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