Help me understand Henri Lefebvre's book, The Production of Space
November 14, 2012 3:07 AM   Subscribe

Help me understand Henri Lefebvre's book, The Production of Space

I have just started reading this book and am finding it incredibly dense and inaccessible. Can anyone point me to a summary of his ideas (ideally something akin to Sparknotes) that I can read alongside the text itself? Thanks.
posted by FuckingAwesome to Education (4 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Stuart Elden, Understanding Henri Lefebvre: Theory and the Possible (London/New York: Continuum, 2004)

Andy Merrifield, Henri Lefebvre: A Critical Introduction (London: Routledge, 2006)

Can't vouch for them, though.
posted by cromagnon at 4:52 AM on November 14, 2012

It's been 20 years since I read it, and this is purely from memory, but I recall it mainly describing a Hegelian transition from pre-modern 'absolute' space (variously including anything divinely authorized or primordially cohesive) to modern 'abstract' space (anything systematically rationalized) but with the potential for 'differential' space to emerge as neither of those things. (I may be conflating the latter with what he called 'historical' space.) If any of that sounds facile, I'm sure it's partly my poor recall, but I didn't see the guiding thread of the book as terribly interesting in itself either. What made it kind of thought-provoking were the dozens of other 'spaces' he made up randomly to talk about this or that phenomenon as if it were fundamentally spatial, when we don't normally think of it that way.

I recommend creating a glossary of 'spaces' as you go, and you'll see most of them pop up and disappear with only a momentary connection to the sustained argument.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 7:34 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'll vouch for Merrifield's book as a good place to start.
posted by RogerB at 9:02 AM on November 14, 2012

OK, I dug up my own notes from 20 years ago, in which I tried to pull out definitional quotes, and this seems like as good a place as any to dump them.

It looks like I recalled the dialectical relationship between absolute, abstract, and differential space well enough, and I'd still say that's key. But I reckon just listing/quoting the species of space that he came up with is a pretty handy summary of the overall work, because it covers his most interesting schtick, and it's not like the connecting arguments are super tight.

Hope this helps some.


According to Lefebvre, there is "an indefinite multitude of
spaces, each one piled upon, or perhaps contained within, the next:
geographical, economic, demographic, sociological, ecological,
political, commercial, national, continental, global. Not to mention
nature's (physical) space, the space of (energy) flows, and so on" (8).

1. Absolute space -- "was made up of fragments of nature located at
sites which were chosen for their intrinsic qualities ... but whose
very consecration ended up stripping them of their natural
characteristics and uniqueness. Thus natural space was soon populated
by political forces ... The absolute space where rites and ceremonies
were performed retained a number of aspects of nature, albeit in a form
modified by ceremonial requirements: age, sex, genitality (fertility)
-- all still had a part to play. At once civil and religious, absolute
space thus preserved and incorporated bloodlines, family, unmediated
relationships -- but it transposed them to the city, to the political
state founded on the town ... Absolute space, religious and political
in character, was a product of the bonds of consanguinity, soil and
language" (48). "Absolute space does have dimensions, [however]
directions here have symbolic force ... Altitude and verticality are
often invested with a special significance, and sometimes even with an
absolute one (knowledge, authority, duty), but such meanings vary from
one culture to society or `culture' to another. By and large, however,
horizontal space symbolizes submission, vertical space power, and
subterranean space death ... [A]bsolute space is therefore a highly
activated space, a receptacle for, and a stimulant to, both energies
and natural forces. At once mythic and proximate, it generates times,
cycles ... [A]bsolute space is located nowhere. It has no place
because it embodies all places, and has a strictly symbolic existence"

2. Abstract space -- At some time, labor became independent of "the
process of reproduction which perpetuated social life; but, in becoming
independent of that process, labour fell prey to abstraction, whence
abstract social labour -- and abstract space ... Abstract space
functions `objectally', as a set of things/signs and their formal
relationships: glass and stone, concrete and steel, angles and curves,
full and empty. Formal and quantitative, it erases distinctions, as
much those which originate in the body (age, sex, ethnicity) ... A
characteristic contradiction of abstract space consists in the fact
that, although it denies the sensual and the sexual, its only immediate
point of reference is genitality: the family unit, the type of dwelling
..., fatherhood and motherhood, and the assumption that fertility and
fulfilment are identical ... Abstract space relates negatively to that
which perceives and underpins it -- namely, the historical and religio-
political spheres ... It functions positively vis-a-vis its own
implications: technology, applied sciences, and knowledge bound to
power" (49-50). "Abstract space is measurable. Not only is it
quantifiable as geometrical space, but, as social space, it is subject
to quantitative manipulations: statistics, programming, projections --
all are operationally effective here" (352).

3. Agro-pastoral space -- "The cradle of absolute space ... a set of
places named and exploited by peasants, or by nomadic or semi-nomadic
pastoralists" (234); an organically coherent space, in some places
inhabited by divine forces yet still a part of nature, that "bore along
the myths and stories attached to it" (193); it's organized in terms of
networks and frontiers, not geometrically.

Appropriated space? It resembles a work of art and is very
different from the dominated space of military architecture or
irrigation systems (165).

Contradictory space?

4. Counter-space -- "An initially utopian alternative to actually
existing `real' space" -- a project made possible by resistance? (349)
An obstacle to some political projects (367). "When a community fights
the construction of urban motorways or housing-developments, when it
demands `amenities' or empty spaces for play and encounter, we can see
how a counter-space can insert itself into spatial reality: against the
Eye and the Gaze, against quanitity and homogeneity, against power and
the arrogance of power, against the endless expansion of the `private'
and industrial profitablility; and against specialized spaces and a
narrow localization of function" (381-2). Not spaces devoted to
leisure activity (383).

5. Differential space -- "[D]espite -- or rather because of -- its
negativity, abstract space carries within itself the seeds of a new
kind of space. I shall call that new space `differential space',
because, inasmuch as abstract space tends towards homogeneity, towards
the elimination of existing differences or peculiarities, a new space
cannot be born (produced) unless it accentuates differences. It will
also restore unity to what abstract space breaks up -- to the
functions, elements and moments of social practice. It will put an end
to those localizations which shatter the integrity of the individual
body, the social body, the corpus of human needs, and the corpus of
knowledge. By contrast, it will distinguish what abstract space tends
to identify -- for example, social reproduction and genitality,
gratification and biological fertility, social relationships and family
relationships" (52).

Dominated/dominant space? Space transformed by technology, by
practice (164).

Empty space? "The notion of a space which is at first empty, but
is later filled by social life and modified by it, also depends on this
hypothetical initial `purity', identified as `nature' and as a sort of
ground zero of human reality. Empty space in the sense of a mental and
social void which facilitates the socialization of a not-yet-social
realm is actually a representation of space" (190).

6. Euclidean space (see also, abstract space) -- Space as it is
conceived mathematically/geometrically (1); a homogeneous and isotropic
space (86).

--. Fractured or fragmentary space (see global/fragmentary space)

7. Geometrical space -- in some places, the same as Euclidean space
(q.v.); also, Cartesian phallic-visual-geometric space? Except that
"[t]he visual-spatial realm ... is not to be confused either with
geometrical space, or with optical space, or with the space of natural
immediacy" (312).

8. Global/fragmentary space -- "It is not, therefore, as though one
had global (or conceived) space to one side and fragmented (or directly
experienced) space to the other ... For space `is' whole and broken,
global and fractured, at one and the same time. Just as it is at once
conceived, perceived, and directly lived ... The contradiction between
the global and the subdivided subsumes the contradiction between centre
and periphery; the second defines the internal movement of the first"

9. Historical space -- Historical space encrusted/overlayed absolute
space; "the forces of history smashed naturalness forever and upon its
ruins established the space of accumulation (the accumulation of all
wealth and resources: knowledge, technology, money, precious objects,
works of art and symbols) ... One `subject' dominated this period: the
historical town of the West, along with the countryside under its
control." Abstract space took over from historical space (but remained
as a layer over absolute space). (48-49).

Institutional/bureaucratic space?

Instrumental space? A space "manipulated by all kinds of
`authorities' of which it is the locus and milieu," (e.g. abstract
space) (51).

--. Intermediate space (see `mixed' space -- but this actually appears
to be different and refers to the "arteries, transitional areas, and
places of business" in the `GMP' scheme (155))

10. Mental space -- The product of a particular theoretical practice;
the axis, pivot or central reference point of Knowledge. "The quasi-
logical presupposition of an identity between mental space (the space
of philosophers and epistemologists) and real space creates an abyss
between the mental sphere on one side and the physical and social
spheres on the other" (6).

11. `Mixed' (mediating) space -- "Words and signs facilitate ...
metaphorization -- the transport, as it were, of the physical body
outside of itself. This operation, inextricably magical and rational,
sets up a strange interplay between (verbal) disembodiment and
(empirical) re-embodiment, between uprooting and reimplantation,
between spatialization in an abstract expanse and localization in a
determinate expanse. This is the `mixed' space -- still natural yet
already produced -- of the first year of life, and, later, of poetry
and art. The space, in a word, of representations: representational
space" (203).

12. Natural (physical) space -- Natural space is disappearing, despite
being the origin and original model of social processes; it cannot be
envisioned as it was before human intervention (30-1). The places of
natural space are simply juxtaposed; they are cannot be intercalated,
combined or superimposed, as the places of social space may (88).

13. Perceptual space (the practico-sensory realm) -- "This brings us to
the articulation between sensory and practico-perceptual space on the
one hand and specific or practico-social space, the space of this or
that particular society, on the other ... In what does sensory space,
within social space, consist? It consists in an `unconsciously'
dramatized interplay of relay points and obstacles, reflections,
references, mirrors, and echoes ... Within it, specular and
transitional objects exist side by side with tools ranging from simple
sticks to the most sophisticated instruments designed for hand and
body" (210).

--. Physical space (see natural space)

14. `Public' and `Private' space -- "The sphere of private life ought
to be enclosed, and have a finite, or finished, aspect. Public space,
by contrast, ought to be an opening outwards. What we see happening is
just the opposite" (147). "It is therefore in appearance only that the
`private' sphere is organized according to the dictates of the `public'
one. The inverse situation ... is the one that actually prevails. The
whole of space is increasingly modelled after private enterprise,
private property and the family -- after a reproduction of production
relations paralleling biological reproduction and genitality" (376).

Relative spaces?

--. Religio-political space (see absolute space)

15. Representational spaces -- "need obey no rules of consistency or
cohesiveness. Redolent with imaginary and symbolic elements, they have
their source in history -- in the history of a people as well as in the
history of each individual belonging to that people. Ethnologists,
anthropologists, and psychoanalysts are students of such
representational spaces, whether they are aware of it or not, but they
nearly always forget to set them alongside those representations of
space which coexist, concord or interfere with them ... By contrast,
these experts have no difficulty discerning those aspects of
representational spaces which interest them: childhood memories,
dreams, or uterine images and symbols ... Representational space is
alive: it speaks. It has an affective kernel or centre: Ego, bedroom,
dwelling, house; or: square, church, graveyard. It embraces the loci
of passion, of action and of lived situations, and thus immediately
implies time. Consequently, it may be qualified in various ways: it
may be directional, situational, or relational, because it is
essentially qualitative, fluid and dynamic" (41-42).

16. Social space -- "(Social) space is a (social) product" (26); "It
ceases to be distinguishable from mental space ... on the one hand, and
physical space ... on the other" (27); "social space `incorporates'
social actions, the actions of subjects both individual and collective
who are born and who die, who suffer and who act. From the point of
view of these subjects, the behaviour of their space is at once vital
and mortal: within it they develop, give expression to themselves, and
encounter prohibitions; then they perish, and that same space contains
their graves. From the point of view of knowing (connaissance), social
space works (along with its concept) as a tool for the analysis of
society. To accept this much is at once to eliminate the simplistic
model of a one-to-one or `punctual' correspondence between social
actions and social locations, between spatial functions and spatial
forms. Precisely because of its crudeness, however, this `structural'
schema continues to haunt our consciousness and knowledge (savoir)"
(33-34); "Social spaces interpenetrate one another and/or superimpose
themselves upon one another. They are not things, which have mutually
limiting boundaries" (86-7). Etc. etc. etc.

17. `True space' vs. `real space' -- True space is mental space; real
space is social space. However, this split serves only to avoid any
confrontation between practice and theory, between lived experience and
concepts, so that both sides are distorted from the outset (94-95).

18. Urban space -- Urban space is proof of the possibility of
accumulation implied by Lefebvre's idea of social space. "Urban space
gathers crowds, products in the markets, acts and symbols. It
concentrates all these, and accumulates them. To say `urban space' is
to say centre and [dialectical] centrality" (101). It "has a symbiotic
relationship with that rural space over which ... it holds sway ... As
image of the universe, urban space is reflected in the rural space that
it possesses and indeed in a sense contains ... [I]t contemplates
itself in the countryside that it has shaped -- that is to say, in its
work. The town and its surroundings thus constitute a texture" (235).
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:15 PM on November 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

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