Henri Lefebvre's The Production of Space

And do you know what "the world" is to me? Shall I show it to you in my mirror? This world: a monster of energy, without beginning, without end; a firm, iron magnitude of force that does not grow bigger or smaller, that does not expend itself but only transforms itself; as a whole, of unalterable size, a household without expenses or losses, but likewise without increase or income; enclosed by "nothingness" as by a boundary; not something blurry or wasted, not something endlessly extended, but set in a definite space as a definite force, and not a space that might be "empty" here or there, but rather a force throughout, as a play of forces and waves of forces, at the same time one and many, increasing here and at the same time decreasing there [...]. Frederick Nietzsche, The Will to Power.

Henri Lefebvre is a name that will be familiar to our readers. (We have reviewed his superb book Introduction to Modernity and have posted an interview with him.) One of the most important French thinkers of the twentieth century, Lefebvre -- in particular, his 1947 book The Critique of Everyday Life -- exerted a profound influence on, among others, the members of the Situationist International; Lefebvre even became associated with the situationists personally in the years immediately following 1958, when he was excluded from the French Communist Party. Lefebvre's close association with the situationists lasted until 1962, when there was a nasty falling-out; their respective paths did not cross again after that. Though the situationists never regretted the bitterness and permanence of their separation from Lefebvre, he clearly did. The Production of Space was originally published in French in 1974, and translated into English by the ex-situationist Donald Nicholson-Smith in 1991. In it, the situationists are located in a certain space; their existence and contributions to the revolutionary movement are neither ignored nor over-emphasized. The very fact that The Production of Space is able to handle the situationists in such an even-handed way is a sure measure of the intellectual honesty and integrity of both the book and its author.

Unlike most English translations of situationist books, The Production of Space is a popular title with book buyers: it has been reprinted every year since 1991, and twice in 1994 (the year its nearly 90-year-old author died). No doubt comparatively few of the book's buyers are deeply interested in Lefebvre's relationship with the situationists and how it underpins or informs The Production of Space. Most buyers are probably drawn to the book by one of the many diverse topics that it covers in depth (spatial practices, architecture, urban planning, the history of the city, "the environment," representation and language, art, ideology, knowledge, epistemology, capitalism, Marxism, and the writings of Nietzsche). No doubt Lefebvre's brief and scattered comments about and references to the situationists will not inspire many of his readers to find out more about them. But the reader who knows well the writings of the situationists -- in particular Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle (1967) -- will get much more out of certain passages in The Production of Space than someone who doesn't; and the fan of the situationists who has read The Production of Space will be struck by the degree to which Lefebvre's book is an explicit attempt to continue the situationist project by means other than the International itself.

In his discussion of "appropriation," which he (following Marx's discussions of human nature) defines as a spatial practice in which nature has been modified in order to satisfy and expand human needs and possibilities, Lefebvre writes: "Appropriation should not be confused with a practice which is closely related to it but still distinct, namely 'diversion' (detournement)." Knowing full well that detournement is a central concept in both situationist theory and practice, Lefebvre goes on to say the following:

An existing space may outlive its original purpose and the raison d'etre which determines its forms, functions, and structures; it may thus in a sense become vacant, and susceptible of being diverted, reappropriated and put to a use quite different from its initial one. A recent and well-known case of this was the reappropriation of the Halles Centrales, Paris's former wholesale produce market, in 1969-71. For a brief period, the urban centre, designed to facilitate the distribution of food, was transformed into a gathering-place and a scene of permanent festival -- in short, into a centre of play rather than of work -- for the youth of Paris.

A number of qualities makes this an extraordinary passage. As every "pro-situ" and situphile knows, the situationists were great fans and "reappropriators" of Les Halles as early as 1960; members of the French section no doubt spent a good deal of time there during the period in question (between the occupations movement of 1968 and the disbanding of the SI in 1972); Guy Debord includes several scenes of the market at dawn in his 1973 film The Society of the Spectacle. But this passage from Lefebvre is more than a tip-of-the-hat to the situationists, to one of their most important concepts, and to one of their favorite hang-outs in Paris.

When the situationists defined the concept of detournement in the first (1958) issue of their journal Internationale Situationniste -- actually, the concept of detournement dates back to Debord's days in the Lettrist International, circa 1956 -- the references were to "pre-existing aesthetic elements," to "present or past artistic production," to "propaganda." In other words, the references were very broad: they took in all forms of cultural production, and were not limited to a single one. "In this sense," the SI wrote in 1958, "there can be no situationist painting or music, but only a situationist use of these means." In the definition provided by Lefebvre, however, the reference is very narrow: to "an existing space." Detournement is (best) understood as something done with pre-existing buildings, streets, fields, neighborhoods or cities. In this view, Lefebvre's definition is part of a larger effort to return the situationist project to its origins in architecture and "unitary" urbanism. As has been pointed out before in the pages of this journal, Lefebvre felt that, after the reorganization of the SI in 1962, the group abandoned both "diversion" and "psychogeographical" experimentation as it perfected and disseminated its critical theories.

But this isn't the only way to read Lefebvre's "diversion" of the situationist concept of detournement. It may be misleading or inaccurate to say that the situationist definition of detournement is broad (all forms of art) and that Lefebvre's is narrow (only architecture and urbanism) -- that is, to imply that the former includes the latter within its much-larger space. It may very well be the reverse: namely, that Lefebvre's insistence that "diversion" is essentially a spatial practice (and not an artistic one) is the broader of the two conceptions; and that (revolutionary) artistic practices are enclosed and only possible within (revolutionary) spatial practices. In this view, Lefebvre's re-definition of detournement might be part of a larger effort to critique, re-invigorate and extend the situationist project, even if this means demonstrating the limitations of and detonating several key situationist concepts and practices.

Since Lefebvre's book is an explicit attempt to demonstrate the limitations of a great many concepts and practices (situationist and otherwise), it seems best to focus upon Lefebvre's specific references to and discussions of the limitations of situationist concepts before we turn our attention to the book as a whole. Otherwise, we risk losing sight of the fact that The Production of Space -- though it is "a situationist book" -- is not a book about the situationists or the situationist project. (We give away no secret when we say that Lefebvre's book is about "a space," a society, "which is determined economically by capital, dominated socially by the bourgeoisie, and ruled politically by the state.") The situationists and the situationist project are relevant to The Production of Space only insofar as this project is an effort to "divert" the totality of capitalist space.

Not surprisingly, Lefebvre focuses on the critical theory of the spectacle, especially as it is elaborated in Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle. Lefebvre's personal contact in the 1958 to 1962 period was primarily with Debord. After the 1962 reorganization, it was Debord's theory of the spectacle that replaced the theories of psychogeography, diversion and la derive (the drift) at the center of the situationist project. Finally, and most importantly, The Society of the Spectacle -- despite the impression that situationist definitions of detournement tend to under-emphasize or even ignore spatial practice -- devotes several chapters to two closely inter-related topics (time and space) that are central to Lefebvre's concerns in The Production of Space.

In a passage that could very well have come from The Society of the Spectacle -- and drawing upon the very same sources as Debord did (Georg Lukacs' History and Class Consciousness and Jean Gabel's False Consciousness) -- Lefebvre writes:

With the advent of modernity time has vanished from social space. It is recorded solely on measuring-instruments, on clocks, that are isolated and functionally specialized as this time itself. Lived time loses its form and its social interest -- with the exception, that is, of time spent working. Economic space subordinates time to itself; political space expels it as threatening and dangerous (to power). The primacy of the economic and above all of the political implies the supremacy of space over time.

Compare this passage with two comments taken from the chapter of The Society of the Spectacle entitled "The Organization of Territory" in the "standard" Black & Red edition. (Note that this chapter is titled "Environmental Planning" in Donald Nicholson-Smith's 1994 translation of The Society of the Spectacle, which is the translation we have used for these and all other quotations.)

The same modernization that has deprived travel of its temporal aspect has likewise deprived it of the reality of space [...] The requirement of capitalism that is met by urbanism in the form of a freezing of life might be described, in Hegelian terms, as an absolute predominance of "tranquil side-by-sideness" in space over "restless becoming in the progression of time."

Though Lefebvre and Debord agree that (historical or human) time has been dominated by (capitalist) space, they disagree strongly as to what to do about it. Is the rediscovery of time the key to the liberation of space? Or is the reappropriation of space the key to the liberation of time? Are these questions mirror images of each other?

Debord insists on the primacy of time and its rediscovery: "The spectacle," he writes, "as the present social organization of the paralysis of history and memory, of the abandonment of history built on the foundation of historical time, is the false consciousness of time." Elsewhere in the "Spectacular Time" chapter of The Society of the Spectacle, he writes,

As Hegel showed, time is a necessary alienation, being the medium [the Black & Red edition uses the word environment here] in which the subject realizes himself while losing himself, becomes other in order to become truly himself. The opposite obtains in the case of the alienation that now holds sway -- the alienation suffered by the producers of an estranged present. This is a spatial alienation, whereby a society that radically severs the subject from the activity that it steals from him [also] separates him in the first place from his own time. Social alienation, though in principle insurmountable, is nevertheless the alienation that has forbidden and petrified the possibilities and risks of a living alienation within time.

For Debord, "spatial alienation" comes into existence as a result of the capitalist production of (frozen) time, not the reverse. To destroy the spectacle, then, fluid historical time must be rediscovered. "The revolutionary project of a classless society, of a generalized historical life, is also the project of a withering away of the social measure of time in favor of an individual and collective irreversible time which is playful in character and which encompasses, simultaneously present within it, a variety of autonomous yet effectively federated times," Debord concludes. "[The revolutionary project is] the complete realization, in short, within the medium [the Black & Red edition uses the word context here] of time, of that communism which 'abolishes everything that exists independently of individuals.' " For Debord, social space ("human geography") is only subjected to radical critique after frozen, "spectacular" time has been shattered and historical time has begun to flow again. If "the entire [social] environment" is to be reconstructed, it will be "in accordance with the needs of the power of established workers' councils -- the needs, in other words, of the anti-State dictatorship of the proletariat."

Typical anti-Hegelian Hegelianism is what Lefebvre would -- and does -- say about this ideological fetishization of time, which involves a reduction of the multi-dimensional complexities of space. "Rediscovered time," he notes dryly, "under the direction of a class consciousness elevated to the sublime level at which it can survey history's twists and turns at a glance, breaks the primacy of the spatial." To Lefebvre, such "restorations" or "rediscoveries" of time are understandable but regrettable and increasingly useless counter-balances to what Lefebvre calls Hegel's "fetishization of space in the service of the state."

According to Lefebvre, "only Nietzsche, since Hegel, has maintained the primordiality of space and concerned himself with the spatial problematic." Significantly, "Nietzschean space preserves not a single feature of the Hegelian view of space as product and residue of historical time," Lefebvre asserts. "Cosmic space contains energy, contains forces, and proceeds from them [...] An energy or force can only be identified by means of its effects in space, even if forces 'in themselves' are distinct from their effects." For Lefebvre, "just as Nietzschean space has nothing in common with Hegelian space, so Nietzschean time, as theatre of universal tragedy, as the cyclical, repetitious space-time of death and life, has nothing in common with Marxist time -- that is, [with] historicity driven forward by the forces of production and adequately (to be optimistic) by industrial, proletarian and revolutionary rationality."

Building upon Nietzsche -- and to an extent alongside the work of Deleuze and Guattari -- Lefebvre insists on the primacy of space and its reappropriation. For him, capitalist false consciousness is not the false consciousness of time, but the false consciousness of space. To abolish the capitalist state, space must be reappropriated on the planetary scale; historical time will be indeed be rediscovered, but "in and through [reappropriated] space." And this is because everything (all the "concrete abstractions") that revolutionaries seek to abolish -- ideology, the state, the commodity, money, value, and class struggle -- do not and cannot exist independently of space.

"What is an ideology without a space to which it refers, a space which it describes, whose vocabulary and kinks it makes use of, and whose code it embodies?" Lefebvre demands. "What would remain of the Church if there were no churches?" The answer is nothing, for the Church does and can not guarantee its endurance otherwise. "The state and each of its constituent institutions call for [pre-existing] spaces -- but spaces which they can then organize according to their specific requirements; so there is no sense in which space can be treated solely as an a priori condition of these institutions and the state which presides over them," Lefebvre writes. "The world of commodities would have no 'reality' without such [spatial] moorings or points of insertion, or without their existing as an ensemble," he reminds us. "The same may be said of banks and banking-networks vis-a-vis the capital market and money transfers." It is only in space that each idea of presumed value "acquires or loses its distinctiveness through confrontation with the other values and ideas that it encounters there"; it is only in space that competing socio-political interests and forces come effectively into play.

As for Debord's "spectacle," it is an ideological force -- another "concrete abstraction" -- that is taken quite seriously by Lefebvre. He writes:

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.

But the process of spectacularization is, for Lefebvre, less "important" than and "in any case subsumed by" the "predominance of visualization." According to Lefebvre, the process of spectacularization is merely one of the functions of the "logic of visualization"; the "spectacle" is one of the "moments or aspects" of visualization.

Despite what was said at the beginning of this piece about Lefebvre's intellectual honesty and integrity, his distinction between the processes of spectacularization and visualization -- which, it should be noted, entails the assignment of Debord to the intellectual ranks of such second-class theorists as Erwin Panofsky and Marshall McLuhan -- seems arbitrary and specious. While it is obvious that a spectacle (an attractive, uncanny or repulsive visual phenomenon) presupposes the ability to perceive visually, it is not self-evident that spectacles only exist, that things are only attractive, uncanny or repulsive (that is, worth looking at) after vision has been established as the most important of the five senses. It is more likely that "the spectacle" (as opposed to a spectacle, or this or that spectacle) and the "predominance of the visual" are simply different names for the same phenomenon.

But this doesn't mean that Lefebvre has nothing new or interesting to add to what Debord says about the society of the spectacle (Lefebvre might have referred to "the society of abstract space," had he been interested in such terminology). Indeed, precisely because he approaches the spectacle from the "perspective" of space rather than time, Lefebvre is able to re-illuminate and enlarge the terrain on which the battle to abolish the spectacle is being fought. The freshness of Lefebvre's take on the spectacle can be detected in both the form and the content of his book.

Unlike Debord's The Society of the Spectacle, which is short, direct, and clearly intended to be definitive, Lefebvre's The Production of Space is long, meandering, and clearly intended to be preliminary. While Debord's book accumulates invulnerable sentences into numbered theses, and numbered theses into numbered and subtitled chapters -- in imitation of the spectacle, which is "capital accumulated to the point that it becomes an image" (emphasis added) -- Lefebvre's book imitates space by being written in such a way that it "is actually experienced, in its depths, as duplications, echoes and reverberations, redundancies and doublings-up which engender -- and are engendered by -- the strangest of contrasts." While the internal divisions (the nine sharply-defined chapters) of The Society of the Spectacle -- reminiscent somehow of wide boulevards that ensure the smooth circulation of traffic -- make sure that the book's major themes do not interfere with each other, The Production of Space (to once again quote its author out of context) is "penetrated by, and shot through with, the weaker tendencies characteristic of networks and pathways." Unlike Debord, who uses the same paths to arrive at different points, Lefebvre arrives at the same points by using different paths.

As for the content of Lefebvre's analysis: the society of abstract space has three essential aspects, two of them unmentioned by Debord in his book(s) on the spectacle: the visual-spectacular; the geometric; and the phallic. For Lefebvre, these three aspects "imply one another and conceal one another," in part because they arose as part of the same historical process. Speaking about (supposedly pre-spectacular) thirteenth century gothic architecture, Lefebvre says that "the trend towards visualization, underpinned by a strategy, now came into its own -- and this in collusion on the one hand with abstraction, with geometry and logic, and on the other with [phallic] authority." And so, rather than speak of "the predominance of the visual" in abstract space, Lefebvre speaks (rather awkwardly) of "the predominance of the geometric-visual-phallic."

Let us focus, then, on the two aspects of spectacular or "abstract" space apparently overlooked by Debord: the geometric and the phallic. Though he knows well that --

A society that molds its entire surroundings has necessarily evolved its own technique for working on the material basis of this set of tasks. That material basis is the society's actual territory. Urbanism is the mode of appropriation of the natural and human environment by capitalism, which, true to its logical development toward absolute domination, can (and now must) refashion the totality of space into its own peculiar decor. ("The Organization of Territory," The Society of the Spectacle.)

-- Debord stops short of describing that "peculiar" decor, of analyzing its distinctive features and shapes, of tracing out its geometry. A curious impression is created by the absence of references to the increasingly obvious use and overuse of straight lines, right angles, symmetrical shapes, and strict (rectilinear) perspectives in spectacular space. There seems to be a kind of blindspot in Debord's analysis. Paradoxically, it is only in some of the images included in the film version of The Society of the Spectacle (1973) that Debord is seen to take direct note of the specific geometrical characteristics of capitalism's "own peculiar decor." The same may be said for the phallic aspect of the spectacle: it is suggested -- but not made explicit -- by the obsessive quality of the film's repetitious use of images of half-nude women. But the book itself never refers to gender, sex, or sexuality. Curious.

As for the "geometric formant," Lefebvre writes, it "is that Euclidean space which philosophical thought has treated as 'absolute,' and hence a space (or representation of space) long used as a space of reference."

Euclidean space [he continues] is defined by its "isotopy" (or homogeneity), a property which guarantees its social and political utility. The reduction of this homogenous Euclidean space, first of nature's space, then of all social space, has conferred a redoubtable power upon it. All the more so since that initial reduction leads easily to another -- namely, the reduction of three-dimensional realities to two dimensions (for example, a "plan," a blank sheet of paper, something drawn on paper, a map, or any kind of graphic representation or projection).

In its geometric aspect, the "abstract spectacle" is a double reduction: first the heterogeneous spaces of nature and social space are reduced to the homogenous space of Euclid; and next homogenous Euclidean space is reduced to the illusory space of two dimensional representations. Space is no longer something concrete and opaque, that is, something to be experienced and lived (as well as perceived and conceived); it is now something abstract and transparent, something to be looked at passively and from a distance, without being lived directly. What is seen is not space, but an image of space. Space becomes "intelligible" to the eye (but only to the eye); space appears to be a text to be read, a message that bears no traces of either state power or human bodies and their non-verbal flows. Certain basic geometrical forms -- the rectangular, the square, the circle, the triangle -- are elevated to the level of the exemplary (microcosms of the universe) and are reproduced everywhere as images of rationality, harmony and order.

Because abstract space "cannot be completely evacuated, nor entirely filled with mere images or transitional objects," and still exist, its geometry is a phallic one. A "truly full object -- an objectal 'absolute'" is required by abstract space. A monumental, vertically-oriented, steel-and-glass architectural erection "fulfills the extra function of ensuring that 'something' occupies this space, namely a signifier which, rather than signifying a void, signifies a plenitude of destructive force." This plenitude is the violence of state power, of the state's monopoly on "legal" violence. Thus there is a tension within the phallic aspect of the spectacle, or, rather, between its phallic and geometric aspects. "Abstract space is not homogenous," though it wishes to appear and be perceived as homogenous, Lefebvre writes; "it simply has homogeneity as its goal, its orientation, its 'lens'." Abstract space appears to be transparent and readable-intelligible, but "this transparency is deceptive, and everything is [actually] concealed," he points out. "Space is illusory and the secret of the illusion lies in the transparency itself."

The three aspects of abstract space -- the spectacular-visual, the geometric, and the phallic -- combine in such a way, Lefebvre concludes, that "the visual realm is confused with the geometrical one, and the optical transparency (or legibility) of the visual is mistaken for logico-mathematical intelligibility. And vice versa." What, then, are we to make of the fact that Debord either folds the geometric and the phallic aspects into the visual aspect (so that the visual aspect is the only one worth mentioning), or completely overlooks the geometric and the phallic, and so only mentions the visual?

From Lefebvre's perspective, Debord is too much of a Marxist, and too little of a Nietzschean. That is to say, Debord is far too concerned with the commodity and its monopolization of time, and too little concerned with state power and its production of space. He is too confident that the economy has indeed completely established itself at the heart of society, and that the state is simply a tool of economic interests, without any autonomous existence, powers or effects. And so, if Debord focuses exclusively on the visual aspect of abstract space, it is because this aspect is the closest to the spectacular appeal of the commodity (its social appearance); and if he turns away from the geometric and the phallic, it is because they are to be associated with the state and its "logical" monopoly on "rational violence."

But let us give Debord the benefit of the doubt. In 1967, the role of the state in the imposition and maintenance of social homogeneity wasn't as clear as it became after 1969, that is, after the state began to defend itself in earnest against the social revolutions of 1968. The books Lefebvre himself wrote before 1970 -- Introduction to Modernity, for example, or Everyday Life in the Modern World -- are also preoccupied with the commodity, and relatively unconcerned with the state. And so one can't blame the Debord of 1967 for not asserting (in the words of Lefebvre) "with reasonable confidence" -- and in direct contradiction with one of the central situationist hypotheses about the banalizing effects of the global commodity-spectacle -- "that the process of producing things in space (the range of so-called consumer goods) tends to annul rather than reinforce homogenization." One can't blame the Debord of 1967 for not seeing what Lefebvre saw in 1974, namely that:

A number of differentiating traits are thus permitted to emerge which are not completely bound to a specific location or situation, to a geographically determinate space. The so-called economic process tends to generate diversity -- a fact which supports the hypothesis that homogenization today is a function of political rather than economic factors as such; abstract space is a tool of power.

Judging from the dramatic shift in his emphasis from the commodity to the state in his 1988 book Comments on The Society of the Spectacle, Debord realized his miscalculation and attempted to correct it (without, for all that, admitting that his 1967 book wasn't perfect). Futhermore, Debord recognized his mistake early. More so than any other European revolutionary, with the notable exception of his situationist comrade Gianfranco Sanguinetti, Debord quickly and fully recognized the international significance of the bombings of civilian targets executed in covert fashion by the Italian secret services in December 1969. On this score, one might very well ask Lefebvre: why doesn't your book -- if it indeed it is concerned with (the opaque machinations of) state power -- contain a single reference to terrorism?

Today, in 1999, it seems very clear that the hypothesis about the role of the state in social homogenization -- which Lefebvre indicates was originally inspired by the Czech writer Radovan Richta -- is absolutely correct. Thanks to an ever-expanding commodity economy, young people today look more rebellious, less socialized, and less like each other in matters of personal appearance than ever before. Piercings and tattoos are a clear sign that certain forms of social conformity and homogenization are at an end. And yet, Lefebvre (following Wilhelm Reich) wants to know, "Why do they allow themselves to be manipulated in ways so damaging to their spaces and their daily life without embarking on massive revolts?" An even better question: "Why is protest left to 'enlightened,' and hence elite, groups who are in any case largely exempt from these manipulations?"

Lefebvre's own answer to these questions is: the nature and effects of (abstract) space. It is abstract space (the space of bureaucratic politics) that produces, imposes and reinforces social homogeneity. In order to destroy the society of abstract space, Lefebvre prepared The Production of Space, which attempts to define and develop some of the necessary concepts ("the production of space," "the political economy of space," and "the science of space" among them). The space produced by Lefebvre is big, almost too big, for it is easy to get lost in it or confused by the return to the same points. Voices echo (off the walls?). Lefebvre himself hears them, and answers back. "Change life!" and "Change society!" the voices call out; they are the voices of situationists. "These precepts mean nothing without the production of an appropriate space," he answers back. "Seize the time!" and "History's not made by great men!" other voices call out. And we answer back that these precepts should be detourned so that they say "Seize the space!" and "Space is not made by great men!"


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