Tag Archives: Henri Lefebvre

The City Sounded

1 Oct

Lisbon StoryA number of themes covered in Fado and the Place of Longing are also explored in Wim Wenders’s film Lisbon Story (1994): the city as museum, tourist destination and object of navigation by its citizens; the importance of recording; stylization and the city’s style; the sound of the city; fate and deliberation. The film also allows us to focus on the role of technology in the processes of recollection, witnessing and representation, playing out the double nature of technology as recording and creative tool. Wenders’s film itself contains a film-within-the-film in which one of the characters, Friedrich Monroe, is attempting to document the city and to record the notable.

Lisbon Story began life as a commission from the city of Lisbon for Wenders to produce a promotional film in the year that the city was European Capital of Culture (1994). At some point Wenders decided to add a fictitious narrative to give the film more dynamism. The storyline allows his protagonist, Phillip Winter (a character Wenders would use in other films), to embark on various quests: for his friend Monroe, for a sense of identity, for love and for perfect sounds (Winter is a sound recordist).

Monroe has contacted Winter to ask him to join him in Lisbon, where he has been shooting film of the city and to add sounds to his footage that will bring his visual images to life. From the outset, sound is the medium through which the technological era is explored. The opening scene in Winter’s car as he drives from Germany to Portugal is accompanied by an ever-shifting radio soundtrack that acts as both travelogue and as an example of the web of broadcast sound which had come to dominance in the twentieth century. Winter carries with him the tools of his trade, a variety of recording devices and objects with which to emulate natural sounds. As we discover on his first meeting with the children who follow him around recording him on video, Winter is an illusionist, conjuring sound from the simplest of objects via the magic of technology.

Philip Winter

Monroe, meanwhile, is revealed as a psychogeographer, wandering the city reciting lines from Fernando Pessoa between ruminations on the cityscape; a figure resembling Pessoa is also spotted on a couple of occasions in the street. In the time between Monroe’s original invitation and Winters’s arrival, the filmmaker has become disillusioned; at one point he declares, ‘Images are no longer what they used to be. They can’t be trusted anymore.’

Music is a central component in the film, especially that provided by the group Madredeus, who had already had a prominent recording career prior to the film but gained even greater exposure after soundtracking it and appearing in it. Outside of Portugal, the group became one of the first Portuguese acts – and certainly the first ‘non-traditional’ act – to be included in the newly-formed ‘world music’ category, gaining them further exposure via the emerging world music media. Although there are elements of fado practice and style in the group’s music, theirs is not fado music. It does, however, provide a good example of the ways in which recording technology would be used in the subsequent promotion of ‘new fado’ artists of the 1990s and 2000s.

A notable aspect would be the use of what we might think of as the ‘sacred silence’ of world music recording. By this, I mean the use of recording technology to attain a crisp, digital silence around the voice and instruments and to single out individual sounds (Teresa Salgueiro’s voice, Pedro Ayres Magalhães’s guitar, or the accordion of Gabriel Gomes in the recordings leading up to Lisbon Story). This stylization of the group’s sound is extended into a visual stylization in Wenders’s film in what seems, at times, to be a promotional video for Madredeus.

The group are seen first playing the song ‘Guitarra’, bathed in light in a heavily stylized setting which Winter stumbles upon as an ‘accidental’ witness. The sound attains the clarity we have come to expect from modern studio recordings. These isolated sounds and visuals are contrasted with the ‘mishmash of life’ and ‘sea stew’ of background noises Winter witnesses as he wanders around the city with his microphone. These field recordings are opposed to the clarity of the rehearsal and studio spaces in a manner analogous to the contrast between ‘ethnomusicological’ and ‘world music’ recordings.

Philip Winter

Another way in which Lisbon Story is related to late twentieth century musical aesthetics is in its deliberate (some might say ‘postmodern’) use of glitch. Just as his character Monroe wishes to recreate the early days of cinema by becoming like Buster Keaton’s cameraman, so Wenders pays homage to early film by including deliberate glitches in some of his footage of Lisbon. Early film and early sound recording, of course, achieved their aesthetic due to the limits of the technology; what is notable about much film and music recorded at the turn of the millennium is that the loss of these limits evokes the desire to recreate them, not because it is necessary but because it is possible. Moreover, Monroe knows (because Wenders knows) that there is no one way to approach or capture the city; it must be ‘taken’ from as many angles as possible. Monroe realized the destructive force that can come with the representation of space: ‘pointing a camera is like pointing a gun. And each time I pointed it, it felt like life was drained out of things … With each turn of the handle, the city was fading further and further.’

Monroe’s radical solution is to assemble an archive of unseen footage, filmed automatically and not viewed but stored away for future viewings. His goal is to record the city ‘as it is, not as how we want it to be’. He here enacts a commitment, like Henri Lefebvre, to a politics connected to representational spaces and lived experience. He seeks restrictions that will allow him to remove himself from the controlling centre of representation, believing that an escape from perfection and a moving toward randomness and luck will help to bring the human back into the city.

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The Sounded City (i)

7 May

Michel de Certeau was keen to present the negotiation of the city as both writing and reading, an in-between process where one is constantly aware of shifting perspectives and of alternations between activity and passivity. However, it is necessary to consider the potential problems of this association between street and page. In his book Species of Spaces – a work that has influenced my own thinking about the possibilities of building relationships between different spatial categories – Georges Perec begins with the space of the page upon which the letters he writes are displayed, before zooming out to the book in which he is writing, the desk upon which the book sits and so on until we have left the room, the house, the street, the city and even the world far behind. The ‘problem’, however, is that we reach the end of his adventure without having really left the space of the page.

Derek Gregory highlights a similar issue in the work of geographer Alan Pred, who explicitly uses wordplay and textual strategies (like Perec, Pred utilizes white space, unconventional line breaks and vertical text) to introduce a spatial element into his writing and to let it perform what it is writing about. Pred describes this as an exploitation of ‘the landscape of the page’ and, while it is true that his reader is forced to be aware, like Derrida’s, that a point is being made about the performative power of writing, his account of the landscapes he describes remains a description and not the landscape itself. Gregory finds more success in Pred’s inventive visual mappings of the itinerary of workers’ everyday lives, where the routes traced by workers are superimposed in a temporal-spatial representation onto the terrain of the city. But, like Certeau and Perec, description is still anchored to the page no matter how much it drifts.

Certeau seems aware of these issues in his comparison between walking and speech acts. Just as a written text cannot represent for us what the speaking (or singing) voice can do in the process of enunciation, neither can the tracing of an itinerary on a map give us a clue as to the processes involved in traversing territory:

Walking affirms, suspects, tries out, transgresses, respects, etc., the trajectories it “speaks.” All the modalities sing a part in this chorus, changing from step to step, stepping in through proportions, sequences, and intensities which vary according to the time, the path taken and the walker. These enunciatory operations are of an unlimited diversity. They therefore cannot be reduced to their graphic trail.

(Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, p. 99.)

Certeau’s reliance on a musical vocabulary is particularly telling. Henri Lefebvre, meanwhile, is interested throughout his later work with a theory that begins with the body. Indeed, Lefebvre’s insistence on the centrality of the body and on others’ bodies, constantly encountered in the production of social space, is one of the areas in which representations of space and representational spaces are seen to come into close relationship with each other. Lefebvre finds the representation of space connected to the dominant order (what Jacques Lacan would call the Symbolic Order) to be one that relies on illusory symbols:

Perhaps it would be true to say that the place of social space as a whole has been usurped by a part of that space endowed with an illusory special status – namely, the part which is concerned with writing and imagery, underpinned by the written text (journalism, literature), and broadcast by the media; a part, in short, that amounts to abstraction wielding awesome reductionist force vis-à-vis ‘lived’ experience.

(Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, p. 52.)

In contrast to this, Lefebvre suggests that music and other ‘non-verbal signifying sets’ (painting, sculpture, architecture, theatre) that rely to a greater extent on space than do ‘verbal sets’ are more likely to keep a sense of space alive, thus challenging the reductionist abstraction of the verbal.

For Alain Badiou, theatre is distinct from the other arts because of its reliance on being acted out in space; the fact that it cannot come together until the time and the space of performance gives it an ‘evental’ quality that makes each performance singular:

[T]heater is the assemblage of extremely disparate components, both material and ideal, whose only existence lies in the performance, in the act of theatrical representation. These components (a text, a place, some bodies, voices, costumes, lights, a public…) are gathered together in an event, the performance, whose repetition, night after night, does not in any sense hinder the fact that, each and every time, the performance is evental, that is, singular.

(Alain Badiou, Handbook of Inaesthetics, tr. Alberto Toscano (Stanford: Stanford Unbiversity Press, 2005 [1998]), p. 72.)

Musicologists reading such a passage will no doubt be struck not only by the fact that musical performance could be spoken of in much the same way, but also that it has already been done, most notably in the work of Christopher Small. I’ll stay with Badiou, however, in order to maintain the idea of the theatre event and what he calls ‘theatre-ideas’, the ideas created at the point of performance which could not have been created prior to it or in any other space. This has relevance for the importance we place on the text in a theatrical event (and I am thinking of a musical practice such as fado singing as precisely such an event), for ‘[i]n the text or the poem, the theatre-idea is incomplete’. Until the moment of performance the theatre-idea is in an ‘eternal form’ and ‘not yet itself’.

While this seems evident in terms of a play we might go to see in the theatre, it is equally true of the theatre of everyday life that Lefebvre recognizes in the street: ‘here everyday life and its functions are coextensive with, and utterly transformed by, a theatricality as sophisticated as it is unsought, a sort of involuntary mise-en-scène.’ Here, the ‘external’ text would be the symbolic law of the representation of space, the legal script that underwrites how we perform in social space. Lefebvre would later develop these ideas in his essays on ‘rhythmanalysis’, where patterns are discerned in everyday life. The practice of everyday life exceeds the dominant script of symbolic law but it does not get rid of the script. Lefebvre speaks of a ‘spatial economy’ whereby users of a city space have an unspoken ‘non-aggression pact’ that determines their rules of engagement with each other. It is this spatial economy that determines what Peter Stallybrass and Allon White call the ‘politics and poetics of transgression’, those moments when the rules of engagement are ignored but whose ignorance relies on the economy both for its beginning and its end (the return to normality).

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.