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Monday, November 12, 2007

Book Review: The Production of Space

The Production of Space by Henri Lefebvre, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith

In Henri Lefebvre's now classic search for a "reconciliation between mental space (the space of the philosophers) and real space (the physical and social spheres in which we all live)" the French philosopher touches on a diverse range of disciplines, including art, literature, architecture, economics, and politics. Throughout the course of the book Lefebvre approaches these and other subjects with a subtle touch that is balanced by aggressive stances on a number of issues, all in a deft manner that exhibits the brilliance of the mind behind the words. This makes for a sometimes exhilarating and sometimes frustrating work, though the later moments are easily overlooked by the former. For this reader the frustration occurred primarily in particularly long stretches dealing either in the overly abstract or with ideas rooted, and responding to, the writings of Karl Marx, whose writings I have very little firsthand knowledge in, though whose ideas fail to fade away in academia and other intellectual circles and therefore seem to warrant some investigation.
Lefebvre's attempt to bridge the gap between theory and practice is based on the thesis that space, and the production of it, is of the utmost importance. This is most obviously due to the fact that all physical things occupy space, most notably people and the interactions that take place between people and their environment. How space is "produced" is definitely not a simple idea to determine, much less explain, but Lefebvre's tripartite breakdown of the production of space helps to navigate the reader to more complex notions as the book progresses; by the end the spatial practices, representations of space, and representational spaces become a familiar shorthand, making readers feel like they've been indoctrinated into a small group with a unique understanding. This feeling, half tongue-in-cheek, also arises from the realization that space is a thing, not the inverse of things or the nether around objects. In fact Lefebvre spends some time detailing how late capitalist society -- of which the study is rooted -- is in the midst of the production of space, rather than the production of things in space; a small distinction at first blush, but one that is extremely important when thinking about the impact of the Market (or Markets, to be more precise) on the city and the country.
When Lefebvre gets on his high horse, so to speak, and admonishes the many negative impacts of the capitalist market and the predominance of the visual and the fake (without pushing for its opposite, something he contends would lead to the same problems under a different guise), we are treated to the aggressive and passionate writing that makes the book not only a search but a call to action, even if it is not explicitly expressed that way. Ultimately one cannot help recognize the critical stance of Lefebvre, who embraces the classical Hegelian dialectics of simultaneous confrontation and codependence but rarely succumbs to simplistic either/or positions, such as the popular dichotomy of Modern vs. Traditional. This makes for a book that isn't tied down by movements or allegiances, but uses the freedom of ideas for an exploration whose most fulfilling outcome would be the extension of those freedoms, where individuals living in space aren't repressed or restricted by those in power, those who have control over the production of space.

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