Wednesday, October 27, 2004

The Word never saved the world

I've been reading The Production of Space by Henri Lefebvre. Given my interests in regionalism and its relationship to other concepts of territory, it's amazing that I never read it before now. So much of what he writes seems familiar, as if I have worked over some of the same problems that he did (what conceit). Obviously, others have taken inspiration from Lefebvre, and he came to some similar conclusions about the meaning of space as John Brinckerhoff Jackson. Nonetheless, it is valuable to have this comprehensive framework in which to deal with spatial practice (relationship between space and the social practices that both produce space and that are contained within space).

The skinny: All societies produce space; that is to say every society had a unique space that is the result of production and social relations. (Yes, Lefebvre was big on historical materialism. And it ain't dead yet.) It embodies the logic of the society in how objects are arrange within it, it is conceptually divided, people interact therein, etc. Space is the both the product of and the milieu for social practices (we can therefore speak of spatial practices).

Over time, different conceptualizations of space overlap one another, layer on top of one another, especially as modes of production change, further complicating spatial practice. Space, therefore, has a history.

In modern times, the logic of capitalism undermines the historicity of space. It tries to replace historical space with another that is abstract, transparent and malleable to the interests of capitalist production (think science and urban planning).
‘... it flattens the social and cultural spheres ... "
Anything traditional and historical is meaningless and can be replaced to facilitate production and capitalist society. (Again, apologies for the historical materialism.) Yes, the medieval church can be turned into office space. If there is anything that survives from historical space, it is transferred into the realms of artistic representation.

Lefebvre struck me when he tackles the question of whether space can be analyzed in terms of language: can space be read? A good question, especially at the time when he wrote the book (Foucault was between the Panopticon and Victorian sex). His answer is highly qualified. Space contains codes that must be interpreted. The problem is that the relationship between space and the people in it is not equivalent to the relationship between the text and the reader. Space is lived in: people are its subjects, and space forms the context in which their social practices make sense.
"... space was produced before being read ... [it was not] produced in order to be read or grasped, but rather in order to be lived ..."

Any meaningful reading of space must proceed from within.

This is an interesting early criticism of deconstruction versus social practice, and given Lefebvre's hyper-Marxism, it is understandable that he would be skeptical about the extent to which deconstruction could be used. One passage, however, really stands out.
‘I cannot give the word such sovereign merit.' Thus Goethe's Faust, Part I. And indeed it is impossible to put such a high value upon language, on speech, on words. The Word has never saved the world and it never will.
My translation has the capitalized ‘Word'; I don't know if it is the same in original language. It reminds me of Lyotard's essay "What is Postmodernism?": they both problematize the truth as solutions. But why would Lefebvre associate deconstruction with religion? How was it supposed to be some sort of salvation?

This book has lots of great examples taken from the histories of art, architecture and urban planning. I love his analysis of the Bauhaus: the first movement to understand that things (buildings, furniture, etc) and their arrangement cannot be disassociated from their social context.


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