The Real-and-Imagined City

7 May

For the psychogeographers mentioned in the previous post, the city becomes both a mental space and a physical problem. This interlinking is something that is taken up in the work of cultural geographers such as Edward Soja and Derek Gregory. Both thinkers are influenced by the work of Lefebvre, who attends to both the real problem of capitalism’s devastating restructuring of the landscape and to the everyday negotiations of citizens in their responses to the situation in which they find themselves. Lefebvre defines three ways of thinking about space: spatial practice, representations of space and representational spaces (or spaces of representation). The first relates to perceived space, the way that socio-spatial relationships are experienced and deciphered materially. Spatial practice is the basic functioning of social space, both the ground on which social space is produced and the means of producing and reproducing itself: ‘The spatial practice of a society secretes that society’s space; it propounds and presupposes it, in a dialectical interaction’.

Representations of space are those conceptions of space that tend toward the abstract (geometry, for example) or a certain kind of artistic vision or imagination. It is ‘conceptualized space, the space of scientists, planners, urbanists, technocratic subdividers and social engineers’. Lefebvre sees this space as the dominant form of spatial thinking in any given society, one that relies on verbal signs to assert its power. Representational spaces refer to ‘space as directly lived through its associated images and symbols, and hence the space of “inhabitants” and “users”’. This lived space is also the space appropriated by imagination and of art that seeks to ‘describe and do no more than describe’. Lefebvre posits a theory of the ‘production of space’ in which all of these features come into play. Social space is the outcome of all three practices, though, as Edward Soja notes, Lefebvre’s presentation is largely a critique of the representation of space and a consideration of the possibilities of representational spaces: ‘It is political choice, the impetus of an explicit political project, that gives special attention and particular contemporary relevance to the spaces of representation, to lived space as a strategic location from which to encompass, understand, and potentially transform all spaces simultaneously.’ I will return to the implications for this favouring of what Soja calls Thirdspace in another post. For now, I want to briefly mention Lefebvre’s thoughts on cities as ‘works’, ‘products’ and ‘works of art’.

Lefebvre begins to discuss this issue by pointing out that nature does not produce, because the way we think of production in a Hegelian or Marxian manner is as something that deliberately creates products. Nature creates but its creations are not products; they are all differentiated and, while they have use value, they are not designed for a reproducibility based on exchange. A city begins as a work, an operation of spatial practice in which initially it becomes, for various reasons, what it is destined to become. But at a certain point its work (the work of becoming a city) has been done and it starts to more closely resemble a product. This is notable in the fact that cities are made up of reproducible parts, which is one reason why they tend to look alike. The tools with which they are built are designed to reproduce certain templates and to themselves be reproducible. But with this realization comes another, that the city was always a product, having been built for particular reasons and developed according to particular motivations. A city, especially a beautiful or unique one, may look like a work (of art) but it was not built to look like one; its workliness came about as a side effect of its productliness. This is related to economics because the tools have been paid for, designed and built and the labour force trained to serve the purpose of a reproducible product. It is no wonder, Lefebvre says, that all cities begin to look alike, for the economic patterns that guide them are all alike. Venice may appear as a unique and unrepeatable work, but it is no more a work of art than those cities which flaunt their reproducibility – it too was the product of capitalist desires and needs and endlessly repeated actions. But it still revels in diversity. There must therefore be a connection between city as work and city as product.

Is it perhaps the case that art provides the space that the city as product needs? In doing so, does it remove the politics of the situation by paying more attention to the aesthetic beauty of the city than to the toil and capitalist ruthlessness that produced it? If fado hymns an aestheticized, imagined city, does it highlight a blindness in the music as to ‘real life’? Lefebvre seems to suggest that we need not go this far. By introducing Tuscany into his discussion, he shows how the creators of cities and the artists who represent those cities have existed in a dialectical relationship to each other. Perspectivism develops in Italian painting as a response to the new social spaces but social spaces come to rely on perspectivism in turn. I think we can allow fado a similar role. It comes about doubtless as a ‘production of space’ but is able to offer a dialectical response in the shape of a music that both hymns the aestheticized city and provides fuel for changes in the social space of the city. Fado is a superlative art form for bringing together the representational spaces of the city with the representation of space, arguably doing so more effectively and more persistently (stubbornly even) than the other arts in Portugal.

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