Henri Lefebvre's The Production of Space

Time is money, almost everyone agrees. Space isn't money: space is what you buy when you already have (enough) money. And to get (enough) money, you save time, you try to invent or borrow time-saving devices and methods. There's "plenty" of space, but precious little time. Or, rather, thanks to tele (long distance) technology -- such delivery systems as the automobile, the airplane, the telephone, the TV transmitter and the Internet -- space no longer matters, it has been transcended or overcome as a factor by speed, by ever faster speeds (cf. the writings of Paul Virilio).

Not surprisingly, much contemporary political protest is preoccupied with time. Protesters tend to protest in response to current events and, in turn, time their actions to coincide or compete with them. Most methods of protest focus upon "taking time" (taking time out to sign a petition or send a letter, fax or e-mail, and then impressing the elected official or CEO to whom all that mail has been sent with how much time it took to write and send all that mail.) Those methods of protest that take place in space (marches, rallies, sit-ins and blockades) are almost always staged with the intent of interrupting, slowing or temporarily stopping "business as usual," automobile traffic or other flows in/of time, but not with the intent of altering the spatial infrastructure that allow them to circulate.

Artists, too, are often preoccupied with time, with depicting or rendering the passage of time, memories, aging, and death. Some artists, it's true, work almost exclusively "with" or "in" three-dimensional space (sculptors, performance artists, stage actors, set designers, installation artists, "free" or improvising musicians, etc), but too few of their works make permanent claims upon or changes to the spaces in which they are staged or displayed.

Several modern theorists speak of various "spaces" or use striking spatial metaphors: Gaston Bachelard (The Poetics of Space); Maurice Blanchot (Literary Space); Foucault (The Archeology of Knowledge); Deleuze & Guattari, the concept of "deterritorialization" (Anti-Oedipus); the Situationist International's concepts of "psychogeography," "unitary urbanism" and "detournement" (Internationale Situationniste); et al. But Henri Lefebvre has a take on the subject that is different from the others. A life-long scholar of cities and social space, he points out, in The Production of Space (1974), that,

we are forever hearing about the space of this and/or the space of that; about literary space, ideological space, the space of the dream, psychoanalytic topologies, and so on and so forth. Conspicuous by its absence from supposedly fundamental epistemological studies is not only the idea of 'man' but also that of space -- the fact that 'space' is mentioned on every page notewithstanding [...] Consider how fond the cognoscenti are of talk of pictural space, Picasso's space [...] Elsewhere we are forever hearing of architectural, plastic or literary 'spaces'; the term is used as much as one might speak of a writer's or artist's 'world.' Specialized works keep their audience abreast of all sorts of equally specialized spaces: leisure, work, play, transportation, public facilities -- all are spoken of in spatial terms. Even illness and madness are supposed by some specialists to have their own peculiar space. We are thus confronted by an indefinite multitudes of spaces, each one piled upon, or perhaps contained within, the next: geographical, economic, demographic, sociological, ecological, political, commercial, national, continental, global. Not to mention nature's (physical) space, the space of (energy) flows, and so on.

Lefebvre notes that, whatever the individual value of these descriptions and sectionings of space, their "very multiplicity" "makes them suspect." Taken as a whole, they "exemplify a very strong -- perhaps even the dominant -- tendency within present-day society and its mode of production," i.e., the "endless divisibility" of labor, that is, endless divisions between and within intellectual and manual labor. In Lefebvre's analysis, the proliferation of specialized discourses on space "mirrors" the proliferation of divisions of labor. He therefore seeks to conceptualize what he calls "the set of spaces, or 'space of spaces,'" the "science of space." His project "will imply the necessity of reversing the dominant trend towards fragmentation, separation and disintegration, a trend subordinated to a centre or to a centralized power." Once again, there's a mirroring. To bring together or show the underlying unity of the multitudes of "spaces," Lefebvre will employ and overlap a wide range of "separate" disciplines, including sociology, political economy, urbanism, architecture, literature, painting, Marxist politics and Nietzschean philosophy, among others.

But Lefebvre, refusing to be "self-contradictory," never produces the "unitary theory," the "theoretical unity between 'fields' [physical space, mental space, and social space] which are apprended separately." He explains: "Some over-systematic thinkers oscillate between loud denunciations of capitalism and the bourgeoisie and their repressive institutions on the one hand, and fascination and unrestrained admiration on the other. They make society into the 'object' of a systematization which must be 'closed' to be complete; they thus bestow a cohesiveness it utterly lacks upon a totality which is in fact decidedly open -- so open, indeed, that it must rely on violence to endure." As a result, it can be very difficult -- but not impossible -- to "apply" Lefebvre's "theory" to concrete examples.

Lefebvre doesn't mention grain elevators, but he comes very close.

As for the commodity in general, it is obvious that kilograms of sugar, sacks of coffee beans and metres of fabric cannot do duty as the material underpinning of its existence. The stores and warehouses where these things are kept, where they wait, the ships, trains and trucks that transport them -- and hence the routes used -- have also to be taken into account [...] It [also] has to be remembered that these objects constitute relatively determinate networks or chains of exchange within a space. The world of commodities would have no 'reality' without such moorings or points of insertion [in space], or without their existing as an ensemble.

Without the "space" of the commodity (containers, warehouses, routes and means of transport), there is no commodity. Lefebvre makes the same point concerning "the church in general" and "the State in general": neither really exist except insofar as their personnel are able to occupy spaces that are suitable to their particular, unique needs; without such spaces, neither the Church nor the State are capable of maintaining, exercising or projecting (their) power. And so, if it had come to grain elevators, Lefebvre would likely have said, "Without them, and the canal boats, lake vessels, railroad cars and trucks that ship grain to and from them, there could be no grain trade in general, no 'daily bread.'"

A full-blown Lefebvrian or "spatial" analysis of a particular (functioning) grain elevator would have three dimensions: 1) positioning the elevator with respect to near-by grain growers, flour mills, breweries, railroad lines, bodies of water, shipping companies, labor pools, sales markets, and banks; 2) situating the elevator within the local geography, economy and social structures; and 3) describing and evaluating the efficiency of the elevator's "internal" operations.

But what about an abandoned grain elevator? What about Elevator #3 in "Old" Montreal, for example? Lefebvre would surely be interested in the following paradoxical "facts," all of which are attributable to the self-contradictory pressures and constraints of capitalism:

1) Some people would like to demolish the elevator, which happens to be architecturally and historically significant (among the world's first elevators built out of reinforced concrete), simply because it is "ugly," doesn't "fit in," or even "scares" them. One can and should refute each of these objections, but not without calling attention to the fact that, as a group, they displace or project upon the elevator fears about the city itself.

2) Adaptive re-use or conversion of the elevator by a commercial or industrial entity not involved in the grain trade is either not technically feasible or too expensive, despite the fact that abandoned elevators have been successfully converted into hotels, museums, planetariums, "canvases" for muralists, places for rock-climbers, etc etc. But perhaps conversion is "out of the question" in this instance because conversion puts in question the "necessity" or economic (ir)rationality of constantly destroying old buildings and building new ones in their places (the economic "necessity" of waste).

3) The land (the physical space of nature) under the elevator is more valuable as a commodity if it is "cleared" or "empty," that is, if the elevator on top of it is destroyed, despite the fact that the elevator itself cost millions of dollars to design and construct. But what happens if the elevator is destroyed and yet the land remains unpurchased? Or the land is purchased but remains unused? Then the elevator will have been destroyed for no good reason. Unfortuantely, it's happened before. For example, in 1984, to make way for riverfront development that never panned out, the City of Buffalo destroyed the Electric Elevator, built in 1897 and the first grain elevator in the world to use both electric power and free-standing steel bins.

4) Because grain elevators made out of reinforced concrete are virtually indestructible, it's prohibitively expensive (and dangerous) to demolish one. They can't be dismantled or knocked down: they must be exploded. And so an economic impasse is reached. Meanwhile, the elevator just sits there and deteriorates.

5) Despite the fact that no one in power has figured out what to do with the elevator, the local authorities (police officers and politicians) are alarmed by the presence of trespassers, squatters, the homeless, explorers, curiousity-seekers, researchers, musicians, drug addicts and others who are attracted to the place and are making (some) use of it. As Lefebvre points out, this state of alarm tells us something essential about the peculiar "hegemony" (omnipresence and fragility) of capitalist power: "According to the space of politics, no part of space can or may be allowed to escape domination, except in so far as appearances are concerned. Power aspires to control space in its entirety, so it maintains it in a 'disjointed unity,' at once fragmentary and homogenuous: it divides and rules."

To Lefebvre, it is essential that activists and artists who would be "revolutionary" produce new spaces, which is inseparable from new everyday lives and new languages. "A revolution that does not produce a new space has not realized its full potential; indeed it has failed in that it has not changed life itself, but has merely changed ideological superstructures, institutions or political apparatuses. A social transformation, to be truly revolutionary in character, must manifest a creative capacity in its effects on daily life, on language and on space." Activists and artists must also take care to select appropriate spaces for their interventions and/or be prepared to make extensive alterations in the spaces they've chosen to divert, appropriate and/or occupy: "[G]roups take up residence in spaces whose pre-existing form, having been designed for some other purpose, is inappropriate to the needs of their would-be communal life. One wonders whether this morphological maladaptation might not play a part in the high incidence of failure among communtarian experiments of this kind." And, of course, activists and artists must be prepared to defend the spaces they are in the process of producing.

Unpublished notes, circa 1999.
For more information on these subjects,

American Colossus: the Grain Elevator 1843-1943 (Colossal Books, 2009)

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