Critical Landscapes: Art, Space, Politics / Edition 1 available in Paperback
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- University of California Press
|Publisher:||University of California Press|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
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Art, Space, Politics
By Emily Eliza Scott, Kirsten Swenson
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
After the Production of Space
Here sits a book: not the thickest book I own, but perhaps the thickest book I've read stem to stern, multiple times. I own two copies. The one before me carries notations and underlining from encounters in different eras. Some scribbles, from my first reading in one of Anne Wagner's seminars in the history of art at the University of California, Berkeley, carry a tone of doubt and frustration; later readings evidence dog-eared pages where I aimed to return and read more closely. The spine carries heavy creases, and blue Post-it notes peep from worn edges. I've carried this book into reading groups and classes, and on long trips; it has a formidable psychic weight all out of proportion to its relatively average size and design.
The book is Henri Lefebvre's The Production of Space, in its English translation by the erstwhile English Situationist Donald Nicholson-Smith. Lefebvre's original appeared in the writer's native French via Editions Anthropos in 1974; after strong advocacy by the leftist geographer David Harvey, among others, the English edition was published in 1991—the year I left a trailer home in the backwater of Frederick County, Virginia, for my first year of university. "Its appearance was the event within critical human geography in the 1990s," writes Lefebvre scholar Andrew Merrifield, "sparking a thorough reevaluation of social and spatial theory, just when apologists for a globalizing neoliberalism proclaimed 'the end of geography.'" And the book's impact was felt beyond the discipline of geography, sending ripples through the history of art. It sat comfortably on a shelf with, and influenced deeply, a "spatial turn" in 1990s writing in and about art, including Martha Rosler's "In the Place of the Public" (1994), Rosalyn Deutsche's Evictions (1996), Miwon Kwon's "One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity" (1997), and Anthony Vidler's Warped Space (2000), among many others. Based in the United States, these writers, artists, historians, and theorists were, Merrifield writes, "living through the very productive process [Lefebvre's] book underscored." (For my part, this would have been the moment I'd encountered not only a theory of urban space, but cities.)
That productive process was the ongoing transformation of the built environment, and of everyday life, by forces Lefebvre's book names in various ways, but primarily as abstract space: a phrase that, like his title, already contained the force of argument. "Not so many years ago," he wrote, "the word 'space' had a strictly geometrical meaning: The idea it evoked was simply that of an empty area." This space, whose origins Lefebvre locates in the thinking of the French philosopher René Descartes, was mathematical in nature, abstract: "a mental thing." Its connotations were those of "logical coherence, practical consistency, self-regulation and the relation of the parts to the whole, the engendering of like by like in a set of spaces, the logic of container versus contents, and so on." Space, that is to say, was initially the province of mathematicians and philosophers, the habitat of an "absolute Knowledge" separated from everyday life by an "abyss."
Around 1910, though, this arrangement, already under enormous pressure, finally shattered. Abstract space came crashing into social life. Lefebvre locates this epochmaking schism precisely, in a moment that calls up the formative experiences of his teenage years (he was born in 1901): World War I and the advent in Europe of modernized warfare; the Russian Revolution and the tumultuous establishment of a Communist state; and (moving now to the specialized realm of culture) the radical intervention of Cubism and the rejection of tonality in music. "Such were the shocks and onslaughts suffered by this space" that only fragments of the older reality remained: "a feeble pedagogical reality ... within a conservative educational system."
Paul Klee's Uncomposed in Space (1929, figure 3) stares blankly up from the cover of my book, as if to give form to how this new world might look (or feel). Strange, incomplete volumes hover against a flattened recession of space, some of them taking quasi-human shape. In the foreground, one form sprouts a torso and head, while another, a corpse, lies prone; isolated, spidery figures clamber over blank surfaces of indeterminate scale. And in the place where perspectivalism would locate its vanishing point, a tall, pitch-black rectangle: void, surface, or mirror? As social life falls to pieces, Klee imagines, geometry comes to claim its due. Through the work of a class of politicians, technocrats, and urbanists, social life—a life that played out in public marketplaces, private rooms, and street corners, and in the texture of love, labor, and political struggle—became increasingly abstracted from itself, constructed from above according to models and concepts from this alien, mental realm of "homogenizing rationality." (Lefebvre's book is pointedly averse to giving these planners faces and proper names; a figure such as Robert Moses, whose redevelopment schemes had casually demolished neighborhoods and landmarks in New York in favor of high-rises, freeways, and tourist spectacles, doesn't appear in its pages. Lefebvre attacks their thinking, their "fake lucidity," their generic type, but not their historical specificity.)
Encoded in the title of Lefebvre's book is his insight into just how this new abstraction came to be. Space is not empty, a "void packed like a parcel with various contents," a sort of blank precondition for whatever might take place within it. Space is a product; it is produced socially. As Lefebvre writes, "space has taken on, within the present mode of production, within society as it actually is, a sort of reality of its own, a reality clearly distinct from, yet much like, those assumed in the same global process by commodities, money, and capital." Social and political forces had engendered a space of capitalist production (of commodities, spectacle, and power) and reproduction (of the family, of labor power, and of the social relations of production) in the place of older forms of life. We might think here of the suburbanization of America after World War II: The urbanized working class are "disaggregated" to produce the suburban nuclear family as a reproductive unit; the supermarket and the shopping mall replace the confusion of the marketplace and city square; and so on. Social space was rewritten according to the logics of capitalist exchange, in the process making it "productive" in a new way: of both economic value and social life.
The term "production" itself carries specific, complicated meanings in this context. In a general way, for Lefebvre production means human creativity, inventiveness, or imagination, as it comes (through labor) to modify what exists in the world. "There is nothing," he writes, "in history or in society, which does not have to be achieved and produced." But under capitalism, he argues, this concept is "narrowed" such that "works in the broad sense are no longer part of the picture." Production therefore comes to refer more strictly to the manufacture of commodities, and, in their exchange and consumption, the creation of economic value. It comes, moreover, to denote mass production, and the division of labor: "Whereas a work has something irreplaceable and unique about it, a product can be reproduced exactly, and is in fact the result of repetitive acts and gestures."
To say that space is produced, then, means that it embodies and enacts the contradictions of Taylorized factory production; it will be dual or dialectical in nature, which is to say, it will embody simultaneously two incompatible truths. Abstract space gains an expansive, "global" dynamic, expanding everywhere, incorporating all the earlier enclaves of historical or spatial difference (the countryside, the desert, geographically remote regions, as well as private and imagined spaces, each colonized in turn). It becomes an interconnecting, totalizing force, and the very precondition for imagining a global or planetary unity. At the same time, and according to the same logic of production, space is fractured into "a multiplicity of procedures and processes" according to the division of labor: industrialized agriculture, administrative subdivision, technical specialization, and real estate speculation. (This last figure might evoke the "tranches" or divisions of real estate debt that played a central role in the 2008 financial collapse.)
"The ways in which space is thus carved up are reminiscent of the ways in which the body is cut to pieces in images," Lefebvre writes. And here we might call up again Klee's painting, as representing a space somehow "whole and broken, global and fractured, at one and the same time." To help us grasp this contradictory picture of modern space is one of the book's primary tasks.
Lefebvre's other task, more political than analytical, is to compel his readers to resist this historical development. A logic of sameness, repetition, and reproducibility had extended, over the course of the twentieth century, ever more pervasively into social life itself, colonizing and displacing the human creativity from which it was built. And through the managerial culture of urbanism and planning, production had transformed space itself, rendering cities—once the space of the unexpected—homogenized, quantifiable, and interchangeable: spaces that are "reproducible and the product of repetitive actions," spaces "made with the visible in mind: the visibility of people and things, of spaces and of whatever is contained by them."
This, as Lefebvre understands it, is a catastrophe. With precise rage, he articulates just what is wrong with this urban regime of visibility and exchangeability: "People look, and take sight, take seeing, for life itself. We build on the basis of papers and plans. We buy on the basis of images. Sight and seeing, which in the Western tradition once epitomized intelligibility, have turned into a trap: the means whereby, in social space, diversity may be simulated and a travesty of enlightenment and intelligibility ensconced under the sign of transparency."
Space had been dominated, even "enslaved," by the forces that had begotten it; its very produced nature was concealed through ideological trickery, made to seem transparent and given. But inasmuch as space had "taken on ... a sort of reality of its own" and was "clearly distinct from ... commodities, money, and capital," it contained the seeds of resistance, too. To reveal the production of space as such—and this is what Lefebvre's book aims to do—might open the potential that this space could be prized away from those forces, appropriated from them, produced otherwise: socialized.
This is what had been attempted in the urban revolts of the 1960s in Watts, Newark, Detroit, and Paris, as well as in Latin America (these, at least, are Lefebvre's references). The reforms and peasant revolts of the first part of the twentieth century had served the ends of abstract space—they had, Lefebvre argues, "smoothed out and in a sense automatized the previously existing space of historic peoples and cities." The revolutionary movements of the 1960s, of workers and students, had marked a potential "new departure" through resistance in the streets and the occupation of factories. Yet through the threat or reality of extreme military force, alongside the misrepresentations of the media, this "reappropriation of space" had largely been forestalled. Written in the aftermath of these events, Lefebvre's book aimed to circumvent defeat by producing a theory of capitalist space and its discontents, and, in so doing, to "detonate this state of affairs."
The detonation Lefebvre imagined, however, has not appeared in the four decades since its publication, or at least not on the terms that he imagined it (though it will be the job of this essay's succeeding pages to account for what other explosions and shocks might have occurred). Nevertheless, his intuition that urban life would now be a vital ground of (leftist) contestation seems accurate enough in light of recent urbanized warfare and political struggle, from the Arab Spring to civil unrest in Paris (2005), Athens and Thessaloniki (2010–), Barcelona, Madrid, and London (2011), Istanbul (2013), Kiev (2014), and Occupy protests worldwide (2011–). For many, not least for artists and collectives who have taken up land use and space as central concerns, his critical language has retained much of its descriptive force. No doubt their copies of The Production of Space are as worn and dog-eared as mine. Lefebvre's thinking similarly courses through the writings of Fredric Jameson, in particular in the spatial reckoning in his watershed 1991 book Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, which draws on Lefebvre to argue that the forms and aesthetics of a period have to be thought in terms of its modes of production. Lefebvre retains vivid argumentative force in the contemporary writing of David Harvey, whose 2012 Rebel Cities frames its history of urban resistances with Lefebvre's urban turn.
If Rebel Cities argues for the continued relevance of Lefebvre's thinking, however, it also points to what has changed in the urban situation since the early 1970s. Factories, whose Taylorized labor served as the model for Lefebvre's thinking about production, "have either disappeared or been so diminished as to decimate the classical industrial working class"—a class that was imagined as a necessary participant in any organized anticapitalist resistance. Dispersed to suburbs and urban peripheries, or their labor outsourced to other nations, workers today often lack the very spaces (shop floors, working-class neighborhoods) where class struggle might once have been articulated, where it might have discovered its "irreducible social specificity." Labor, too, has changed dramatically: "The ever-expanding labor of making and sustaining urban life," Harvey writes, "is increasingly done by insecure, often part-time and disorganized low-paid labor. The so-called 'precariat' has displaced the traditional 'proletariat.'" The dispersal and disorganization of these workers presents huge difficulties for political organizing of any kind, he acknowledges, much less some strong vision of urban revolution. One needs to know who might have reasons to resist and where (in what space) their resistance might emerge, before one decides on how.
Excerpted from Critical Landscapes by Emily Eliza Scott, Kirsten Swenson. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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