Tag Archives: production of space

Festas

7 May

It is well worth paying attention to the role of music and festivals in the city as forms of both divergence from and reassertion of social norms. In Lisbon, this is particularly notable during the period known as the Festas de Lisboa, a series of festivals held in celebration of the ‘popular saints’ and in which there is an interesting mixture of official and semi-official events. The former comprise concerts, marches, exhibitions, screenings and so on. The semi-official include the taking over of public spaces by stalls serving drinks and stages where music is played. The fact that the predominant music at this point is pimba and that the food served is grilled sardines reflects the sense of tradition and of the country in the city (pimba is generally more associated with the countryside). Pimba is explicitly rude, does not attempt any of the erudite airs and graces of fado (although there is a rude undercurrent to fado too), and, as a music that cannot be cleaned up or made cool, lurks as the obscene underbelly of popular culture in Portugal.

Such events allow power to continue, as Slavoj Žižek explores in much of his work. Using the example of the mutiny against Captain Bligh on The Bounty, Žižek focuses on the uses of unofficial power and the relationship between power and enjoyment. The enjoyment, or jouissance, associated with unofficial power – the power that operates ‘below decks’ – must be recognized and allowed to operate by the forces of official power ‘above’. Should the official power attempt to curtail the unofficial, the latter will most likely rise up against the former: ‘The mutiny – violence – broke out when Bligh interfered with this murky world of obscene rituals that served as the phantasmatic background of power.’ (  Slavoj Žižek, ‘“I Hear You With My Eyes”; or, The Invisible Master’, in Renata Salecl & Slavoj Žižek (eds.), Gaze and Voice as Love Objects (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1996), p. 100.)

The connection between official and underground power tends to be more prevalent in the case of authoritarian regimes. It is interesting to note the use of music and festivities in films from the era of the Estado Novo to see how this connection is played out. In Canção de Lisboa (1933), there are various moments when impromptu moments of transgression break out, such as an improvised fado in the street and a drunken rant by the main protagonist against fado and fadistas, during which he proposes an ‘anti-fado’ week to cure the nation’s social ills. As commentators on the film have noted, however, these are moments of mild transgression which allow for the presence on screen of police officers or other patriarchal figures associated with the state to reassert the law. In this film, as in others such as O Costa do Castelo (1943), Fado, História D’uma Cantadeira (1948) and O Grande Elias (1950), fado is cast as both hero and villain. A common theme is commitment to the social group, often epitomized by the family, with a typical plot involving deception or abandonment of certain family members, resolved by a conversion in which the transgressor sees the error of their ways. In Fado, História D’uma Cantadeira, the fado singer (played by Amália Rodrigues) abandons her family to become a famous performer. She transgresses to such an extent that she even abandons fado. At the point where she enacts the ultimate betrayal – not reading a note that has been sent to her regarding a family illness – she is seen singing flamenco.

This dialectic between transgression and the law is visible also in the mass fencing-off that is the result of what Lefebvre calls ‘vacationland festival’, those areas marked off for rest and relaxation that promise utopia but rely on careful staging and investment by capitalists.  It is visible too in the spaces allotted to fado, from the taberna to the large scale shows put on for the Festas. In these events, fado fills the streets and lays claim to the city, to the people and to an escape from its boundaries. What we can determine from the festival and other negotiations of power in the social space is a reliance on a script which may be exceeded but cannot be done away with.

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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.