Ross Exo Adams has kindly agreed to share this essay, originally posted at Society and Space, with the Spatial Register. Here, in the context of a renaissance of Henri Lefebvre’s thought, Adams offers a provocative critique of what he describes as the ‘vagueness’ of the philosopher’s understanding of the urban and the city.
The previously untranslated essay by Lefebvre, ‘Dissolving City, Planetary Metamorphosis’, to which Adams is specifically responding, can be found here.
Lefebvre and Urbanization
Without a doubt, Henri Lefebvre’s work is seductive. He was the first person to transcribe Marxian discourse into spatial terms, demonstrating that space becomes an abstract category necessary for the reproduction of capitalist relations. He is also one of the few thinkers of his time to devote a large proportion of his writings to the city, viewing it as an instrument of the capitalist state and the prime site in which everyday life is captured and behaviors commodified. And unlike many other thinkers, he dared to push his work into forms of praxis that sought new, emancipatory spaces and experimental practices. Today, amidst ever expanding interests in urban space and its worldwide entanglements with neoliberal politico-economic forms, together with growing movements like Occupy or Los Indignados, his legacy is impossible to ignore. Already having influenced a generation in the 1980’s to take up the city as an object of thought and site of resistance, there seems to be a renaissance of Lefebvre’s work today. The translation of this small text to English will sit alongside a series of other recent and forthcoming publications, translations and compilations of his work. All of this comes amidst a growing recognition of the urban as a specific category of space given over to increasingly interrelated sociological, philosophical and ecological and political inquiries. In fact, this is perhaps what makes Lefebvre’s work so seductive: he was able to see the city as the space in which all such inquiries not only could but indeed had to be posed simultaneously. To this œuvre, we can now add the small, contemplative text, ‘Dissolving city, planetary metamorphosis’—a text whose title alone seduces inasmuch as it resonates with contemporary observations on what Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid have called ‘planetary urbanization’.
Yet just as the translation and publication of a text by a distinguished figure like Lefebvre is call to celebrate his contribution, it is also a moment to address its limitations. More than anything, what this brief article makes clear is the vagueness with which Lefebvre had always understood the notions of the city and the urban as well as the urgent need we have today to clarify the latter.
This may seem surprising given that he was the first sociologist to make the distinction between the two categories of space. Yet what is strikingly evident from the first line of this text is that the urban, “viewed as the sum of productive practices and historical experiences”(page 203), is tremendously unspecific. Never far from contradiction, Lefebvre’s use of the urban is often hard to pin down, which ‘Dissolving cities’seems to reiterate. More than a precise spatial order distinct from the city—a reading he is increasingly credited for today—, the urban was a term which operated both as a sociological potentiality as well as an effectively transhistorical category of space; both revolutionary and repressive, theoretical and quotidian. At its best, it was a liberating social power which offered new forms of human experience; at worst, a synonym for the society produced by global capitalism. Tellingly, despite the past thirty years of critical reflection on forms of urbanization—much of which attributed to Lefebvre’s influence—almost none of it has attempted to assess the notion of the urban as such. Only recent efforts by Brenner and Schmid to recover Lefebvre’s work on this have given rise to a lively body of work, challenging the scope of urban studies by questioning this category itself.
The bipolarity with which Lefebvre treats the urban marks not only its distinction from the city-as-œuvre, but shapes his entire body of work, dividing critical analysis from utopian lyricism, and is perhaps what lends his work such seduction today. Yet it is also what limits it. While this approach surely opens possibilities for conceiving praxis out of critical thought, it also forecloses the urban to function toward both ends of this project simultaneously: the urban must be the manifestation of contemporary forms of the capitalist state—the carrier of his spatialized marxist teleology—while also, paradoxically, an original force of human communality. Behind the familiar phases of history to which his spatial schema adheres, the city (or the urban?) can only be historically read as a kind of neutral, adaptive medium with its own ancient genealogy; a register of human existence which corresponded at one point in time to a natural space of co-habitation that sequentially gets co-opted (produced) by the church, the state and finally bent around the interests of the dominant industrial-capitalist class. This history provides us with a neat portrait of the city (or the urban) as an epistemologically voided category which can only ever reflect the dominant modes of production of any given time, even in its instrumentality: A given society produces its particular space. Yet historical and conceptual consistency seems to plague his work: How can it be that ‘urban society’can be historically produced when the urban itself seems to be something of a historical a priori pre-existing by millennia ‘urban society’s’historical arrival?
Unfortunately, although its now 25 years old, many of the observations Lefebvre makes in ‘Dissolving cities’seem quite commonplace. For example, the biggest problem that he sees with the‘planetarization’of the urban is a loss of diversity and a homogenization of space (page 205)—a simplified echo of critiques made in The Production of Space. Surely the sharpest observation made in this text comes in the proposition of its title, where Lefebvre notes the planetary scale that the urban had achieved in the shadow of the dissolving figure of the city—again, invoking this interesting distinction only to then abandon it in the prose of the text. He asks: “Are new forms arising in the entire world and imposing them upon the city? Or, on the contrary, is an urban model gradually expanding to the worldwide scale? A third hypothesis suggests that we are currently in a transitory period of mutations in which the urban and the global crosscut and reciprocally disrupt each other.” Even here we see Lefebvre’s limitations in understanding urbanization in itself: with less idealism and more historical rigor invested into the categories of his inquiry, it may not have slipped by that these three hypotheses are in fact one. Indeed, the urban is a ‘new’ (i.e. historically situated) form that has supplanted the city; it is a spatiality predicated on both its universality and its capacity to expand, connect, unify and homogenize, and thus its now planetary scale is an artifact of what the urban has always been capable of rather than a radically new rescaling (or a reciprocal disruption) of some idealized, vestige of human co-habitation.
Ironically, what Lefebvre seems to miss is that the radical displacement of the city by the urban is historically grounded—it is a specific ordering of space, bodies and movements new to the world. More than a sociological ‘metamorphosis’ which extends across history from 0 to 100%, this historical shift was a political transformation in which power invested itself no longer in representational motifs but in a technology whose reach could extend both to the most intimate depths of life at the same time as it could operate at a planetary scale. This was the explicit ambition held by a range of ideologues from the late 18th century whose work influenced major spatial and infrastructural projects throughout the 19th century, setting in place the ground work for what has become an anonymous, global project continuing to the present day. It is a spatiality which borrows unconsciously from various historical orders in its constitution (the oikos, the colonial settlement, the territory among many others) yet its eventual culmination (as both space and process) would only begin to emerge some two centuries ago.
Perhaps it was always a deliberately broad notion for Lefebvre that he never wished to define categorically, but more a tool to describe the social phases of history. That is to say, despite the fact that Lefebvre historicized the distinction between city and urban (The Urban Revolution), and later space in general (The Production of Space), both the city and the urban were themselves instrumental for his larger ambition of spatializing a Marxist historical schema; they were discursive categories of space which seem at many times frustratingly indistinguishable from one another and thus hard to locate historically without the given mode of production which describes them.
Indeed, the urban seems to have proven to be a category that even Lefebvre, in the opening lines of this piece, acknowledges having misjudged. For him, the urban seems to remain an empty, historically indifferent category without some kind of external descriptive framework to animate it. Like the many who presume it to be a semi-transhistorical form, Lefebvre saw the urban as a pharmakon, both poison and cure. Inevitably the urban, seen in the infinite, could stand as a signifier whose purpose is to materialize the dialectical weight of a teleological history. And once the revolutionary project of his present seems to have subsided, as this text intimates, we end up yet again with a category as inconsequential and vague as it is today ubiquitous.
Ross Exo Adams
10 April 2014
See Lefebvre, H., 2003, The Urban Revolution, illustrated ed. Translated by R. Bononno. U of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis. Lefebvre, however, was not the first to make this distinction: several architects, from Le Corbusier to Hilberseimer raised this distinction in their writings already in the early and mid twentieth century and much more importantly, this distinction drove the entire project of Spanish civil engineer, Ildefonso Cerdá’s various theories of and around ‘urbanization’(urbanización)—a term he in fact coined in 1861. See Adams, R., Natura urbans natura urbanata: ecological urbanism, circulation and the immunization of nature, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 32(1), pp. 12-29.
Lefebvre sketches this out in Dissolving cities, planetary metamorphosis, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 32(2), p. 204. For a more elaborate version, see Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution, pp. 7-15.
Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution, p. 2.
Lefebvre, Dissolving cities, p. 204.