As space is subjugated by the logics of capital, ‘commodification becomes the operational logic of spatial practices’ (Lefebvre, 1991: 106). Abstract space, as defined in the seminal work of Henri Lefebvre, denotes an alienated and alienating socio-spatial condition produced through the interactions of spatial practices, representations of space and representational space (1991). That abstraction of space is not, however, totalising; it aims to homogenise but is full of contradictions. Space is ‘always under construction’ (Massey, 2005: 9), constituted through interrelated trajectories that coexist as a relational matrix (ibid.). Actions that engage with and intervene in spatial conditions, taking into account the dominant and residual imaginaries constituting a space, may find and engage with fissures and fractures of abstract space to generate a contrary formation that Lefebvre described as ‘differential space’ (Lefebvre, 1991: 302), heterogeneous, fragmentary, spontaneous and, occasionally, poetic. Lefebvre’s account of the social production of space has been expanded through the ‘critical modality of spatial practice’ (Hirsch and Meissen, 2012) that emerged from spatially oriented fields of practice and inquiry, including architecture, art, urban studies, urban activism, critical geography and more.
Critical spatial practice is ‘an interdisciplinary terrain of spatial theory that has reformulated the ways in which space is understood and practiced’ (Rendell, 2006: 1). Critical spatial practice, a term devised by Jane Rendell, is concerned with transforming ‘the social conditions of the sites into which they intervene’ (Rendell, 2016). In critical spatial practice, ideas such as ‘territory, agency, agonistic negotiation, blurred boundaries, grassroots democracy, heterogeneity, cross-benching, participation, relational aesthetics, post-public environment, micro-urban tactics, etc.’ (Slager, 2016) invoke and flesh out the triadic dynamic of spatial practices/ representations of space/ spaces of representation described in Lefebvre’s theories of the social production of space (1991).
‘Socio-spatial’ is a term that was coined by Edward Soja to supplement Lefebvre's groundbreaking work on the social production of space (1991). Soja believed that Lefebvre's concept of social space had become ‘murky with multiple and often incompatible meanings’ (Soja, 1980: 209). Soja restated the dialectical aspect of Lefebvre’s position:
. . . social and spatial relationships are dialectically inter-reactive, interdependent; that social relations of production are both space-forming and space-contingent (insofar as we maintain a view of organised space as socially constructed) (ibid: 211).
Lefebvre himself rejected, or at least modified the ‘dualisms’ (1991: 39) of the dialectical movement. In its place he devised a triadic form of analysis that he applied to several areas of inquiry, including language, space, the everyday and rhythm. The dynamic figure operating in Lefebvre’s work can be understood as ‘the contradiction between social thought and social action, supplemented by the third factor of the creative, poetic act’ (Schmid, 2008: 33). His theory of the social production of space (1991) posits space as a fluctuating condition generated through the interactions of three ‘moments’ of spatial production, which never settle into a stable configuration.
The first of these moments, spatial practice, consists of situated activities and interactions grounded in a material reality; the second, representations of space, uses language, mapping, charts, algorithms, valuations and other abstract forms of demarcation as a ‘technology of abstraction’ (Wilson, 2013: 368) that renders space calculable and thereby commodifiable. The third mode, spaces of representation (also called representational space) refers to ‘space as directly lived, the space of inhabitants’ (Lefebvre, 1991: 39). Christian Schmid calls this ‘the material “order” that emerges on the ground (which) can itself become the vehicle conveying meaning’ (Schmid, 2008: 37). This is the realm where hegemonic and counterhegemonic productions of space are in a state of constant tension, generating normative and/or unconventional socio-spatial forms.
Lefebvre’s triadic scheme recognises a degree of uncertainty in the production of the socio-spatial order and offers a methodology for prying open a gap between the contradictory immediacy of lived space and capital’s strategic shaping of that space, a gap from which contrary meanings and spatial practices might emerge. This triadic form joins Marxian rationality with Nietzschean poesy to describe a system capable of uncertainty in the production of the socio-spatial order and offers a methodology for prying open a gap between the contradictory immediacy of lived space and capital’s strategic shaping analysing the incomplete, creative process by which social and spatial reality comes into being (Schmid, 2008). Lefebvre’s analytical method supports the discovery or recognition of a horizon of becoming, of possibilities, uncertainties and chances. It also enables the formulation of a strategy without the certainty of achieving the aim (ibid: 34).
Hirsch, N. and Miessen, M., (eds.), 2012, What Is Critical Spatial Practice?, Berlin: Sternberg Press.
Lefebvre, H., 1991, The Production of Space, trans. D. Nicholson-Smith, Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.
Schmid, C., 2008, Henri Lefebvre’s theory of the production of space: towards a three-dimensional dialectic, in Goonewardena, K., Kipfer, S., Milgrom, R., and Schmid, C., (eds.), 2008, Space, Difference, Everyday Life: Reading Henri Lefebvre, New York and London: Routledge, pp 27 – 45.
Soja, E., 1980, The Socio-Spatial Dialectic, in Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 70, No. 2. (Jun. 1980), pp. 207-225.
Rendell, J., 2006, Art and Architecture: A Place Between, London: I. B. Tauris.
Rendell, J., 2016. Critical Spatial Practice as Parrhesia. MaHKUscript. Journal of Fine Art Research, 1(2).
Wilson, J., 2013, “The Devastating Conquest of the Lived by the Conceived”: The Concept of Abstract Space in the Work of Henri Lefebvre in Space and Culture 16(3), pp 364–380.