This was a short piece delivered to the Henri Lefebvre reading group at UCL, Nov. 2012. A slightly reworked version appeared in the New Cross Review of Books (NXRB).
The ‘Plan of the Present Work’ or introduction to Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space is a dense drift across a series of themes, disciplines, topics and targets: from mathematics to linguistics, from Plato to Chomsky, from Surrealism to urban planning. It reflects the manner in which Lefebvre himself, we can imagine, drifted around his office dictating the work to his secretaries. This is not just meant to be a flippant comment, but gives some insight into how the text itself was produced. It was spoken in immediacy, filtered only by the typist, rather than the perhaps more reflected act of Lefebvre writing the work out himself. The working out of his theory of space occurred alongside the material work carried out by his staff. This wandering style, dense but loose, gives some account for Lefebvre’s sweeping build up to his own theory of space.
“To speak of ‘producing space’ sounds bizarre”, Lefebvre states, “so great is the sway still held by the idea that empty space is prior to whatever ends up filling it”. (1991, p. 15) There is a ring of the enlightenment era debate between Newton and Leibniz in the priority given to empty space. The former had advocated a mathematically independent absolute space, while the latter argued for a relational space dependent on the connection between objects – and Lefebvre certainly mines the history and “long development of the concept of space” in the opening sections of the text. Crucially, for Lefebvre, this critical history is an opportunity to identify fundamental problems with how ‘space’ has been approached and allows him to pose his notion of ‘social space’ in response. The common perception of space as an empty area or container, is a symptom of the fragmentation of space in western thought and culture. This fragmentation, expressed in binary oppositions such as the mental (the intelligible, the mathematical, the space of the philosophers) and the lived (the sensory, the material, the practical), is traced through Descartes, mathematical theory and into contemporary philosophy. We become “confronted by an indefinite multitude of spaces”: literary, ideological, geographical, economic, commercial, national, psychoanalytic etc. (3,8) These separate, distinct, disciplinary spheres serve to reflect the specialist and functional distinctions in material and urban space: spaces of leisure, work, play, transportation, public facilities, etc. In all of this, space becomes a vague and neutered concept. This is space viewed as a neutral container: “Space that is innocent, as free of traps and secret places”. (28) Lefebvre is attempting to tear this veil of vagueness and neutrality, to reveal that space is fundamentally political and that this political character of space is hidden by ideology. Space reflects the social relations of production and the social relations of production reflect space. They are mutually constituting, in dialectical relation with one another. This is the essence of Lefebvre’s maxim: (Social) space is a (social) product.
Production is a key term for Lefebvre, which can be understood in reference to both Hegel and Marx. While the text is weighted towards Marx, it’s nonetheless worth exploring his use of Hegel – not only in recognition of Lefebvre’s role, along with Alexandre Kojeve, in introducing Hegel into French thought, but also because Hegel underpins his understanding of ‘social space’. In Lefebvre’s words, Hegel is the Place de l’Etoile of the text, at once austere and monumental, but also an important nexus for the convergence and circulation of ideas. Lefebvre’s incorporation of Hegel is not uncritical and we need to bear this in mind. In Hegelian fashion, certain aspects are discarded while others are deployed. Hegel’s notion of space is dismissed as statist by Lefebvre (21), yet Hegelian production is maintained. In defining Hegelian production Lefebvre writes:
“In Hegelianism, ‘production’ has a cardinal role: first, the (absolute) Idea produces the world; next, nature produces the human being; and the human being in turn, by dint of struggle and labour, produces at one, history, knowledge and self-consciousness – and hence that Mind which reproduces the initial and ultimate Idea”. (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 68)
‘Production’, as described here, is not given a spatial understanding. This is rather a broad account of Hegel’s philosophy and ‘production’ is located in the action or type of movement undertaken by the absolute idea in its full, self-conscious realisatiion. There are hints of a notion of circulation as the idea is then re-produced. For Lefebvre, the productive movement within Hegel hinges on the term “concrete universal” – a notion that seemingly belongs to philosophy while also extending beyond it. (1991, p.15) The “concrete universal” is constituted as a relation between the general, the particular and the singular – or the logical-epistemological, the descriptive and the sensory, respectively. What is significant is that the interrelation between these three notions, under the “concrete universal”, provides a means to escape the “straightjacket” of dualisms that pervade western thought – expressed as the division between the mental and lived, theory and practice, etc. This relates back to space which Lefebvre regards as being traditionally divided between ideal space as mental categories and real space as the lived space of social practice. (1991, p.14)
The concrete universal allows Lefebvre to “discover or construct a theoretical unity that is apprehended separately”. (11) The concrete universal allows a new account of space, at once unified, but also fragmented into the particular (or descriptions and cross sections of space), the general (logico-mathematical space) and the singular (or sensory, lived space). This, in turn, opens out into distinctly Lefebvrian approaches to space: the triad of spatial practice, representations of space and representational space, the triad of space as perceived, conceived and lived, and abstract and absolute space.
The introduction is essentially Lefebvre’s unfolding of the concrete universal into an analysis of space. The terms he uses, such as abstract and absolute space, social space, conceived, perceived and lived, spatial practice, representations of space and representational space can be isolated and abstracted to better fit our own research and projects, yet all are to be taken together as overlapping and combined concepts. This makes Lefebvre difficult to unpack. We either take Lefebvre at his word in deploying these multiple, overlapping terms, or we confront the idea that he is a bit loose and inconsistent with his language, something that might very well happen when one wanders an office, working out a theory by dictating it to staff.