The Production of "Space"

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A few years post-recession, a band of newly minted Ivy League graduates found themselves shut out of the literary establishment and hung their own shingle with The New Inquiry, an online publication that the New York Times once branded as a “roving clubhouse that functions as an Intellectuals Anonymous of sorts for desperate members of the city’s literary underclass. The New Inquiry trafficked in the dense and half-intelligible and Parisian, as if written by academics exiled by graduation. Over the years, the publication became (seemingly) one of the largest fora for essays by people in media studies, critical theory and literature. Students and their professors from the New School finally had a committed home online.

Now, eight years after the Times called it a cradle for “literary cubs,” The New Inquiry has positioned itself as a non-negligible farm league for the same apparatus that once rejected its writers, posting them at places like The New Yorker (one as a staff writer) and The New Republic (as published...

For God’s sake, is there a way drop some of these New’s? Maybe some other magazines could be referenced? But they did go off to work for those places, to New This and That. Maybe there's a place other than The New Inquiry altogether? But that really was the outlet I discovered the basis for this essay. Maybe something else could work instead of the New School? But few places conjure the same association with the steely polysyllabism developed for decades at the New School, which also, being based in Manhattan, has a tighter relationship with the publication.

After I wrote that, I googled “‘New School’ ‘New Inquiry’” to see how tight that relationship was. The second image result is a screenshot of text that links to a page that begins, “Rachel Rosenfelt is a co-publisher of The New Inquiry, the creative director for Verso Books, associate director of the department of Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at The New School, and a 2017-2018 member of NEW INC.” NEW INC is a project of the New Museum.

The basis of this essay goes as follows:

One night, I went to The New Inquiry’s website and wandered around for no other reason than to see what the place was up to and realized that I kept falling upon the word “body”. Bodies were everywhere! They were in the articles, in the subtitles, in the publication’s tweets. They were found in stretches like, “When Sandra Bullock undresses in Gravity, she reveals less a body than a machine. This is workflow cinema[.]” Or, “The body that refuses the parameters of the medical test is an unlucky body.” Or, “‘Cure culture’ (a term used by the autistic community to describe the apparatus of institutions and discourses which pathologize the autistic body as an object to be rehabilitated by medicine) prompts the nation to secure itself from the presumed threats which autistic embodiment pose to the neural future of its citizens.”

Occasionally, these bodies would merge with another element and become something even greater—there were not just bodies, but bodies and spaces, two small nouns that when joined together emitted the intellectual energy of nuclear fusion. “The cane, itself a designed object, is a clear marker of the differential (often antagonistic) relations that design produces between bodies and spaces/places, and between non-standard and standard bodies.” Or, “Unlike Motta and Lubin-Levy’s sexualized spaces without bodies, Grindr delivers sexualized torsos tiled in the no-space of a smartphone screen: bodies without spaces, pure grid and no mass, frictionless, smooth erotic pulses.”

I brought this up with friends. Had they noticed the preponderance of “bodies” and “spaces” among this class of writers too? One replied by sending me this tweet:

Pitchfork: King PU$$Y Eater revolutionizes our perception of bodies and spaces with his hit single “Goop on Ya Grinch” [7.6]

— mustard tiger (@JucheMane) April 14, 2017

“Bodies” and “spaces” were traditionally used together squarely in the domain of science, medicine and mathematics. There are Minkowski bodies and cell bodies and convex bodies and multivesicular bodies; there are extracellular spaces and vacuolated spaces and Banach spaces. At least in the English speaking world, for most of the 20th Century, these terms rarely found themselves joined in the same document outside of scientific journals or patent filings.

Gascia Ouzounian, a professor of music at Oxford, pins the period when “space” specifically began its mass migration to the humanities to in 1974, when the French Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre released The Production of Space and “helped launch a notion of spatiality that included in its scope the body, action and the constructed environment.” The Production of Space was translated into English in 1991; reviews of its translation typically acknowledge its impenetrability. “The complexity of Lefebvre’s arguments, and their elusive character, make it very difficult to interpret precisely what he means at any particular juncture,” the geographer Tim Unwin wrote. “This is not only because he develops similar notions in different ways throughout the book, but also because his sentence construction is frequently opaque…At one level, Lefebvre’s project was to get people to rethink their ideas about temporal explanations of society. Readers are forced to think anew by the very complexity of the language that he uses…What matters is not so much what he wrote, but rather the reactions that the book evokes in his readers.”

More than trying to advance any specific argument, Lefebvre ultimately wanted to fold the very consideration of space into critical discourse. The Marxism of his day was the recognizable dialectic between capital and labor, but it was missing an important piece: what about space? There is not simply a relationship between workers and capital, but between workers, capital, and the land on which production depends, the cities the workers inhabit, the offices they work in. Each of these is produced by and produces the other: capital creates the condition of the worker, the worker reproduces capital, which produces space, which produces the conditions of the worker and capital, and so forth. “Since…each mode of production has its own particular space,” Lefebvre wrote, “the shift from one mode to another must entail the product of a new space.” The nature of these modes of production, of the ways that capital reproduces itself, can be gleaned from “decoding” these spaces. And that spatial “code” effectively involves everything that space contains: “[A] spatial code is not simply a means of reading or interpreting space: rather it is a means of living in that space, of understanding it, and of producing it. As such it brings together verbal signs (words and sentences, along with the meaning invested in them by a signifying process) and non-verbal signs (music, sounds, evocations, architectural constructions).”

Lefebvre believed in the potential of what he called “Moments”—transient events of awareness and transcendence beyond capital. These Moments can include sudden perception of how capital operates, and to Lefebvre, that could mean revelations about the production of space. In order to hazard a small example of space within his understanding, I’ll offer a “Moment” I recently had: This winter, I went to drink a cup of tea at a place called The Bean, a coffee chain in New York City. As a matter of fact, I went there to drink tea and read a review of The Production of Space. I had my cup of tea and I loaded the essay on my browser and started to read and realized I couldn’t, because just as I opened it, Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” came blasting out of the cafe’s speakers, which made concentration impossible. My instinct to react with frustration instead yielded to a Moment in which I realized that the inability to focus on something like Marxist spatial analysis wasn’t a mistake of the cafe. The music—and every song that came on before, and each one after—was a sound that mostly neutralizes critical thought, something actually contraindicative to Moments themselves. The Bean was exactly the type of space our current mode of production (one in which the various cognitive effects of pop music have become so central) would generate, and it’s exactly this kind of space that would continue to perpetuate that mode. This wasn’t an effect explicitly intended by the cafe or its workers, it’s just what happens in the kind of space that capital, in 2019, happens to produce—its spatial progeny.

To Lefebvre, there are three spatial planes in my event at the cafe. First, there’s the physical space of the cafe, which is nested in the physical space of the city (including what Lefebvre calls “the arrogant verticality of skyscrapers”), and so on. This is Euclidean space. There’s the area inside my own mind where my feeble attempt at a thought collides with sound. This is mental space. And then there is the network of entities that bring the cafe into being—the LLC or private equity company that owns The Bean, the bank that credits the LLC, the political apparatus drafting laws that allow LLCs to shield owners from liability, the supply chain that brought the tea from abroad to my cup in Manhattan, the system of music production and dissemination that put Avril Lavigne on the speakers, and on and on. This is abstract space.

Situated in and producing this space, is, of course, the body. “Theoretical thought…has re-embraced the body along with space, in space, and as the generator (or producer) of space,” Lefebvre wrote. The human body itself, according to Lefebvre, is sine qua non to the understanding of space, both by constructing it and being part of it. And the body is what experiences this space. It’s what experienced the loud music from the speakers, what filled the chair I sat in that created the space for others around me, etc. As Unwin writes, quoting Lefebvre, “[he] was eager to reincorporate the body into his analytical framework. He was particularly concerned that ‘Western philosophy has betrayed the body; it has actively participated in the great process of metaphorization that has abandoned the body; and it has denied the body.”

The three types of space, thought Lefebvre, were mistakenly confined to distant disciplines that ought to be reconciled. Mathematicians and the like studied Euclidean space, psychologists and the like studied mental space, and the abstract material was left to sociologists and theorists and the rest of them. Instead, just as capitalism was really a trialectic between capital, labor, and space, so too did space involve three critical constituent parts, and properly studying it would involve the consideration of all three at once, along with an understanding of the body’s role in creating, being created by and experiencing these spaces.

“Epistemological-philosophical thinking has failed to furnish the basis for a science which has been struggling to emerge for a very long time…That science is—or would be—a science of space.”

This is what Lefebvre wanted The Production of Space to do—to forge the foundations for a new field of science.

Last year, someone asked the British Library Reference Service on Twitter what the service’s most requested book was. It was The Production of Space, requested 701 times between 1997 and April 2018. At the library at the University of Virginia, where I first checked it out, the book had a four-hour limit on its use due to high demand.

Lefebvre was not the first to use “bodies” in a non-scientific context, and he wasn’t the first to use “spaces” in those contexts either—in that regard, he had plenty of company in 1970s French philosophy. But whatever its influence on the field of geography and urban studies (and judging from the treatment it has received from influential geographers like David Harvey, that influence is vast), and whatever the extent of its causality, The Production of Space was a large, influential work amid a movement of language as a new way of writing took root among a generation of intellectuals and academics. After the 1991 English translation of his book was published (and around the time people like Judith Butler were also using similar terms), “bodies” and “spaces” were adopted en masse by people outside the fields where the terms were traditionally used. Twenty years after its publication, papers with “bodies” and “spaces” in Google Scholar were more likely to come from journals of the humanities and social sciences than of medicine, biology, or mathematics, or from patents.

Until quite recently, that development would have struck me as damning evidence for point made by Noam Chomsky, which for years stood in for most of my stance towards the language of the academic left:

If you look at what’s happening, it’s pretty easy to figure out what’s going on. Suppose you’re a literary scholar at some elite university or anthropologist or whatever. I mean, if you do your work seriously, that’s fine, but you don’t get any big prizes for it. On the other hand, you take a look at the rest of the university and you’ve got these guys in the physics department and the math department and they have all kinds of complicated theories which of course we can’t understand, but they seem to understand them, and they have principles and they deduce complicated things from the principles and they do experiments, they find either they work or they don’t work. That’s really impressive stuff. So I want to be like that too. So I want to have a theory. In the humanities, in literary criticism and anthropology and so on, there’s a field called “Theory”. We’re just like the physicists: They talk incomprehensibly, we can talk incomprehensibly. They have big words, we’ll have big words. They draw far reaching conclusions, we’ll draw far reaching conclusions. We’re just as prestigious as they are. Now if they say, well look, we’re doing real science and you guys aren’t, that’s white-male-sexist, you know, bourgois-whatever the answer is. How are we any different from them? Okay, that’s appealing.

This isn’t wrong. Chomsky’s assertion that non-science academics have co-opted the language of math and science is literally true: Lefebvre considered his work to be the beginnings of a new science, and as the adoption of “bodies” and “spaces” over time throughout the non-scientific fields shows, the co-optation of that language is exactly what happened. Frederic Jameson, in his short essay “On Jargon”, admitted to something along these lines himself: To demand clarity in writing, he wrote, begs the question “why in a time when all the other sciences are becoming increasingly specialized and impossible of access to the layman, the study of a complex society like the capitalist one should be any easier.”

But while Chomsky's take isn't totally off base wrong, my support for his notion—that the difficult language of philosophers and academics is nearly always a distant abstraction divorced from reality that serves no useful purpose—has unraveled, if not entirely, then enough to make me empathize with Jameson more. We should conjecture at the structure of things, and those structures usually take on counterintuitive forms. The starting point for discussing them is often a philosophy based in experience and perception, and that philosophy will have a texture different from the brutally prosaic style that Chomsky employs in his books, which, for all their immense value, often amount to prosaic enumerations of American bombing campaigns. I’m sure most of us who formed our political identities by discovering Chomsky at some point recognize the criticality of that type of work, but there’s a limit to its potential (especially aesthetically). Jameson’s exhortation that in order to grasp capitalism in an era in which it has colonized every last element of life, one must essentially understand everything—human libido, the subconscious, space, and so on, into all domains—seems more reasonable by the day.

So Chomsky’s caricature may actually raise a question he didn’t intend to ask: Among this generation of intellectuals—the contemporary Marxists, postmodernists, the critical theorists, all those things adjacent to them and every combination of them—why isn’t there more science? Or maybe more accurately, where did all the numbers go? So much of Capital’s tedium owes to Marx’s long passages of arithmetic. And the few successive efforts at real empiricism, such as in Pierre Bordieu’s Distinction and Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, are so lauded (and cited) that one wonders why their methods of data collection and verification are not more often employed. Instead of science, why do we always end up with lyrical scientific gestures?

I’ve shown the graph of the growth of “bodies” and “spaces” to half a dozen people and asked for their interpretations. Each answer contained different details, but each also ended on the same admonition that to answer the question fully is incredibly difficult, would require a thorough intellectual history of the growth of these words, and that one could spend a dissertation’s worth of work doing so.

This isn’t a dissertation, though; it’s a few thousand words ruminating on a few graphs, which I acknowledge to deflect as many castigations of not having mentioned this and that as possible. There are boundless possible causes behind this graph. One is the capture of science and economics departments in the United States by corporate interests that have little inclination to reach out to feminist scholars and figuring out how experimentation can be brought to bear. Another is the increasing specialization across all domains that discourages anyone from doing anything that falls outside the tight confines of a hyperspecific doctoral program. One can imagine other explanations without too much effort.

But while the specific, proximate causes of the growth of “bodies” and “spaces” could take up at least a one-day conference, the reality of any situation involving people is this, stated in terms as commonsensical as Chomsky himself could possibly want:

Humans are mimetic creatures; we copy shit other humans do. It’s the tendency that spawns a thousand New Things. Increasingly, for the past century, we have formed identities based on images and celebrity, and we—associating the behaviors of celebrity with the bounties of celebrity—copy what celebrities do. As more people copy a specific behavior, others copy the behavior not of the celebrity but of the group, and trends form. Academics are people, therefore they are subject to mimicking the behaviors of celebrities. Therefore they are subject to trends. And since, for many decades, an American academic’s impulse for celebration has had few plausible objects to mimic in the United States, they have looked to Paris, one of the only places in the world where intellectuals are regaled with Hollywood-level attention, and they mimicked them instead. Once the behavior became established in on the other side of the Atlantic, the Americans could just begin mimicking each other.

In 1974, in the New York Review of Books, the economist Robert Heilbroner (of the New School lol) wrote an admonishment that I think bears on the use of these sorts of words: “Marxism has no claim to be, and surely is not, the only mode of comprehending reality, including that aspect of reality on which it sheds a more vivid light than any other, namely, the historical and existential nature of capitalism.”

The adoption of scientific terms emanates a feeling of objectivity, of immutability, that there is in fact no other way of comprehending reality, just as there is no feasible way of understanding organisms without extracellular spaces. It gives an impression that the empirical work has already been done. Often, it hasn’t. Often, it can’t be, and often it needn’t. But sometimes it can be, and sometimes it should. – Andrew Thompson