Henri Lefebvre




‘What is urban space? What is a town? How are they composed at different levels – blocks of flats, buildings, monuments – in a word, the architectural and, at another level, the urbanistic?’ We are beginning to think that these questions, which are seemingly empirical and a matter for positive knowledge, have a secret affinity with various philosophical questions: ‘What is man? What is his relation to being? What is the relation between being and space? How do things stand with the man’s being, his evolution, his ascent, or his nothingness?’ If we knew how to define ‘man’, would we not be able to define the urban and the town? Unless it’s the other way round, and we just first of all understand the town if we are to define this political animal who constructs cities, living in them or fleeing them. In that case, inquisitive thinking would investigate the urban in the first instance, rather than positive knowledge in isolation or power in abstracto. Perhaps the town holds the answer to some crucial questions that philosophers have ignored for years. Unless, vice versa, the mystery of the town betokens the absence of any answer. Do these enormous collections of things, men, women, works and symbols possess an as yet undeciphered meaning? Or do they have no meaning? However that may be, it is in towns and the urban that the everyday – ours – is instituted.

And here we confront a new paradox among so many others. The break-up of the historic town has been going on since the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth; it figures in the collapse of reference points already referred to. Yet one remarkable result of it has been to facilitate a novel analysis of the urban question. Here before our very eyes is the town situated on the suburban outskirts; it is in pieces, fragments, parts, laid out alongside one another. In this fragmented city, the only thing to be done is to make an inventory of the elements of the whole, bearing in mind that some pieces may be missing here and there, and that the break-up might have distorted them. The elements that were combined into a strong unity by historic towns (a unity that fragmentation eliminates, and which consequently poses a problem) are perceived item by item. Thus, the activity of knowledge proceeds via the negative! Most specialists in urban questions, happy with such a godsend, make do with describing the fragments; they find the post-mortem analysis of the urban conducted by contemporary practice adequate. They refer to what they collect with terms that seem to contain impressive positive knowledge: housing conditions, the built environment, things mineral and vegetable, amenities, and so on. Yet these terms, far from containing knowledge of the urban, merely refer to functions separated by an anatomical operation, by separation of the historical elements of the urban into inert entities. But it is in this framework – a very precise term which encapsulates the rigidity or inertia of the result – that the people of daily life have to live.

Those who have not given up on critical analysis and theoretical thinking know that what they have before them is merely the spectre of the town. And this in the dual sense of the French word spectre: (a) an analysis comparable to that of white light by the prism which splits it up, revealing what is involved in the apparently simple clarity of the sun or light source; (b) a ghost, outliving what was once a vibrant urbanity and its unity.

Assembling and combining these separate element does not restore the lost life of towns. Here, too, le mort saisit le vif! Like the humanity to which it offers shelter, the town is alienated. Moreover, spectral analysis is not exhaustive; the outskirts and suburbs exclude certain elements which are indispensable to the urban – for example, the memory and symbolisms that were once integrated into monuments. As is well known but frequently forgotten, any analysis risks killing its object for the sake of seeing and knowing what it contains. An effective analysis of towns in the real world of their break-up must now be subjected to a method whose watchword and procedure have already been set down: situating and restoring. But such an approach cannot be inaugurated and pursued without taking account of the everyday life of the relevant parties: inhabitants, city dwellers, citizens or, again, ‘users’. What is outlined is a problematic. A new one? Not completely new, but one that is rarely articulated to its full extent.

The problematic of time and space far exceeds the present account. Research and discovery follow a path full of obstacles and pitfalls. For example, it may be that analysis finds itself faced with blindingly obvious facts – that is to say, faced with the causes of or reasons for certain observable effects, causes or reasons that have nothing occult about them, even though they need to be discovered; so familiar are they that they simply go unnoticed. This is how things proceed in the study of language, where everyone uses forms and structures without necessarily having a knowledge of them as such. Likewise with the study of everyday life and the urban, where what is most familiar is also the least known and the most difficult to make out.

Time as such is irreversible. It is impossible, inconceivable, to go in reverse. Complete repetition of the past can be demanded of the divinity by those who believe in his omnipotence (Kierkegaard). It can be conceived in the absolute, ontologically and metaphysically (the thought, which reconstructs the past of the individual, the group or a particular society with difficulty. Inasmuch as it is reversible, space is distinguished from irreversible time, although space and time are intimately connected. But time is projected into space through measurement, by being homogenized, by appearing in things and products. The time of daily life is not only represented in clocks and watches; it is also represented in photographs and curios-souvenirs. These memory-objects, these palpable, immediate traces of the past, seem to say in daily life that the past is never past. Not explicitly but implicitly, it signifies the reversibility of time. In this fractured, fragmented time, we can return to the past, since it is there. More so than others, the kitsch object possesses these strange properties: a blending of memory, recollection, the imaginary, the real. The illusion of reversibility gives everyday time an air which might be taken for happiness, and does indeed possess a certain happy – or, at least, satisfied – air. Is it not pleasant to escape time, to break out of time – not into the timelessness of the great oeuvre, but within temporality itself? But one of the consequences is the elimination of tragedy and death. People sometimes ask how and why this tragic age lacks a tragic consciousness, why it eliminates the tragic knowledge around which thinking revolves. Here is a partial answer: the appearance and illusion of the reversibility of everyday time, represented by objects that possess this meaning and this privilege. Eliminating the tragic is part of the tragedy of the age. This elimination does not go beyond appearances. Under the masquerade of kitsch, the tragic follows its course. If objects form a system – something we can accept in the case of functional objects, such as utensils and furniture – its meaning is to be found not in what it declares, but in what it dissimulates, which extends from the tragic to the mode of production via the malaise of daily life. The production of daily life, which is opposed to daily life as oeuvre, thus includes the production of everyday space and time, as well as the objects that fill up the everyday, the mass of objects intended to fill time and space. This mass is likewise simultaneously homogeneous and fragmented, and hierarchically organized. Regarding this schema – ‘homogeneity-fragmentation-hierarchization’ – the main point has been made. Since this organizational schema was discovered in connection with space, there is no point returning to it. By means of such organizational forms, operating in various sectors and domains, and even though these forms and schemas do not correspond to any determinate institution, daily life finds itself instituted. Strategy? Yes and no. No, because the result is obtained in accordance with the objective, and hence ‘unconscious’, modalities of the mode of production. But yes, because the orientation gives rise to multiple tactical operations directed towards an overall result.

Social space (like theatrical, pictorial or architectural space) can no longer seem like the discovery of a pre-existent, ‘real’ external space, any more than it can seem like the covering over of a natural space by an ‘authentic’ mental space. These philosophical schemas are no longer admissible. Social space manifests itself as the realization of a general practical schema. As a product, it is made in accordance with an operating instrument in the hands of a group of experts, technocrats who are themselves representative of particular interests but at the same time of a mode of production, conceived not as a completed reality or an abstract totality, but as a set of possibilities in the process of being realized. This theory accounts both for the specificity of the organizational schema (homogeneity-division-hierarchization), and for its historical appearance at a given moment in the evolution of space – which is by no means innocent, since it involves and contains a strategy – is passed off as disinterested positive knowledge. It is projected objectively; it is effected materially, through practical means. There is thus no real space or authentic space, only spaces produced in accordance with certain schemas developed by some particular group within the general framework of a society (that is to say, a mode of production). This theory also accounts for the correspondence between the various spaces: the general space of society, architectural space, everyday space, the space of transport as well as that of furnishing, and so on.

The splintering of time and space in general homogeneity, and the crushing of natural rhythms and cycles by linearity, have consequences at other levels. This state of affairs creates a need for rhythms. The imposition of daily life as we have defined it thus goes together with rhythmical innovations in music and dance, innovations that accentuate rhythm and restore it to daily life. Is it any coincidence that the institution of this everydayness goes together with the enormous success of exotic or ecstatic rhythms, with the increasing role of music in social life, with the search for ‘highs’ and the extraordinary, in a transgression of all rules extending even to death trances? The festival, which in other respects has been recuperated and commercialized, is restored, together with features that had been done away with: rupture, transgression, ecstasy. In this way, daily life leads to retaliation; because it is becoming normal, rupture takes abnormal, even morbid, forms. We should not be astonished at this, let alone wax indignant over it. Among the Greeks, the Dionysian did not submit to the pure idea of beauty. The Bacchantes, roaming through the countryside, yelling, diabolical, tearing the living beings they came across to pieces, were not obliged to be ‘beautiful’. Even then, it was not a matter of a rupture with daily life, but a return to cosmic forces…

In and through music and dance, times becomes irreversible once again. The festival unfolds once more, headed towards its end, consuming what it draws its substance from: energy, desire, violence. At the heart of everyday positivity, the negative springs up in all its force.



Published here with kind permission of Verso.

In: Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life (London, New York: Verso, 2014)




PUBLIC SPACE by Wim Cuyvers