The [Ancient] Urban Revolution

This is the second post in a series on Lefebvre & Ancient Space, the project description is here. Page references are to the 2003 University of Minnesota translation by Robert Bononno with a forward by Neil Smith, available here.

In the opening line, Lefebvre sets out the hypothesis for The Urban Revolution: ‘society has been completely urbanised’ (1). This opening hypothesis requires definition and Lefebvre continues ‘an urban society is a society that results from a process of complete urbanisation’ (1). In contrast, and causing confusion, urban society is used by others to refer to any urban agglomeration or city, whether the Greek polis, oriental or medieval cities, commercial or industrial cities, small cities, the megalopolis (1). However, ‘urban society’ cannot be applied to all phases in the history of the city only to the particular phase following industrialisation (2). The categories of cities are important, as they draw on the general phases of the history of the city in Marxist thought (discussed in a previous post). Lefebvre uses a space-time axis of urbanisation to signpost the division of time, one part of the history of the urban, that is abstract, arbitrary and gives rise to periodisation that have no privilege over other divisions (7). It is worth noting that this is not a history of urbanism, a point Lefebvre draws out at the end of chapter two (41). Three categories correspond to historical cities, which lead to a ‘critical phase’ of current urbanisation, and are placed on the space-time axis: the political city, mercantile city, and industrial city. While Lefebvre’s main concern is with understanding the critical phase, one is required to trace the development to understand the current urban reality.

In Marxist Thought and the City, Lefebvre connects the political city with the ancient city and draws out the implications for social relations (see post here). The ancient city politically dominated the countryside and public and private ownership of property marked the space of the ancient city (Marxist Thought and the City, 29, 77-80). The same definition of the political city is found in The Urban Revolution (8-9; see Marxist Thought and the City, 29), but the discussion opens up the several aspects of the categorisation. The political city closely follows, or accompanies, from the establishment of organised of social life, agriculture and the village (8). For this reason, Lefebvre places the political city at the origin of the space-time axis (8). Socially the political city is made up of priest, warriors, princes, ’nobles’, military leaders, as well as scribes and administrators (8). Writing is necessary for the operation of the political city and it is given over to power, through orders and decrees (8). This implies exchange, which is needed to gain the materials for warfare and excreting power, and artisans and workers to fashion such items (8). What Lefebvre lays out is the material forms of the social and political organisation of the ancient city, although without the use of the term ‘ancient city’. Here we see one of the challenges with Lefebvre: discussion of a single concept spans several writings and, at times, without direct reference to each other.

The transition between the political city to the mercantile city, according to Lefebvre, is precisely over exchange and the integration of markets and merchandise (both people and things) into the city (9). The political city is dependent on exchange however, control and power are excessed to manage such spaces. Spaces of exchange are marked by signs of heterotopy, which are at the outset excluded from the political city (9). Clearly with Foucault’s use of the term in mind, Lefebvre places heterotopia in a different register that of places of informal exchange: caravansaries, fairgrounds and suburbs (N. Smith, ‘Forward’ to The Urban Revolution, xii). It is this process of integration, which Lefebvre notes took centuries, of heterotypic spaces into the city that marked the shift to the mercantile city. For Lefebvre, this does not fully happen until the late Middle Ages and prior to this it was the space of assembly (the agora or forum) at the centre of the city (10). The transition to the merchant city saw an associated shift in the urban form, as exchange became an urban function embodied in the this new city structure (10). Lefebvre dates this transition to the fourteenth century and emphasis the three elements in the transition of form, function and structure (10-1). At a certain point, and Lefebvre does not give a specific date, there was a shift in the relationship between city and countryside (11).

The relationship between city and countryside is discussed at length in Marxist Thought and the City and here, references is focused on the shift from countryside to city in the merchant city phase (see the previous post & 11). Lefebvre argues that at this time the individual losses connection with the city, as well as with nature and the countryside (11). Instead the state takes over both the city and countryside, but is veiled from the individual (12). Reason, logos in Lefebvre, is reborn, not attributed to the urban, but as a transcendent ideal (12). Attachment to the material elements of the urban is lost and Lefebvre notes this loss as the cause of decline in Athens and Rome (one of the few direct references to Rome, 12). At the same time as the rationalism, which culminates in Descartes, the importance of urban life comes to the fore and an image of the city emerges (12).

Lefebvre maintains the importance of exchange and commerce, which imply forms of capital, in the transitions between city phases. Industrial cities emerge from the development of industrial capital and the growth of markets, just as the mercantile city was grafted onto the political city before it (13). There is little reference to the ancient city in the rest of the chapter and, as we have seen in Marxist Thought and the City, Lefebvre argues for social relationships being constituted in the physical and conceptual idea of the city. That is the form, function and structure of the city embody the particular social relationships of that given culture.

Chapter two, ‘Blind field’, again has limited reference to the ancient city, but deserves some close consideration. The theoretical importance of the argument will be apparent and it frames some of the arguments in other writings. The space-time axis, which Lefebvre introduces in the previous chapter, leads to a virtual object (complete urbanisation) (23). In reference to the previous city forms, each successive form allows the previous to be understood. Thus, the breakdown of the precapitalist and preindustrial city, caused by the introduction of capital and industry, allows for the industrial city to be understood; the mercantile city enables the comprehension of the prior political city (23). In this respect, complete urbanisation, a virtual object (the 100% point on the space-time axis), allows for understanding the current form of the city, despite the fact that the complete urbanisation has not yet happened and creates a blind field in social theory (29).

Lefebvre brings in another triple division in phases in the space-time axis: the rural (peasant), the industrial, and the urban (28). These phases are ‘not simply social phenomena but sensations and perceptions, spaces and times, images and concepts, language and rationality, theories and social practices’ (28). In the transition between these phases, the previous phase blinds one to the next phase; the urban is understood by concepts derived from industrialisation (29). Here we see one of Lefebvre’s driving forces in his spatial theory. Theory, as well as philosophy, needs to move beyond the confines of its own production; that is the contemporary city must be understood through theories that have moved beyond those of the prior industrial city. ‘Field’, for Lefebvre, indicates not an approach but, a global concept of a succession of periods and the periods taken individually (32). That is not simply layers of facts or phenomena but, modes of thought, action and life (32).

The urban is a new field, according to Lefebvre, poorly understood and unknown (36). As a new field, urban thought needs reorient itself to the blind field by focusing on social, spatial and temporal differences (37). Another triptych of concepts is introduced in order to understand these differences: isotopy, heterotopy and utopia (37-8). Any place and its surrounding area (neighbourhood, immediate environment)no matter the geographical distance, is an isotopy; that is anything that makes a place the same place, a homologous or analogous place (37-8). Within that place, however, there is always another place, a different place, which is heterotopy (38). A ‘incision-suture’ space, a neutral space, is necessary to differentiate the juxtaposed spaces, which take the form of streets, squares, intersections, gardens or parks (38). However there is also an elsewhere, a non-place, which is the utopia (38). This utopia is not an abstract imaginary but, a real place connected to situations of people (individuals and groups) associated with divinity, power or the imaginary (38). Lefebvre is clearly engaged with Foucault’s idea of heterotopia, but as Neil Smith notes, Lefebvre invokes heterotopia at a more ‘critical register’ that of renegade commercial exchange, politically and geographically independent from the political city (xii). In reference to utopia, Lefebvre draws on the concept of monumentality, especially in relation to the ancient city, as the site of utopia (38-9).

In chapter five, ‘Urban myths and ideologies’, Lefebvre discusses the myth of Atlantis in Plato’s Critias (104-5). The myth of Atlantis serves to introduce Lefebvre’s definitions of myth, ideology and utopia, which are discussed throughout the chapter. Lefebvre begins by posing the question of whether Atlantis could be classified as an urban myth (104). In ancient Greece, as seen in Marxist Thought and the City (2016: 78-82), the political city dominated its surrounding territory, whether villages or peasant groups (104). Plato, thus, applies philosophical thought to the problem of the ancient city, that is the problem of the ancient city’s rational and threatened institutions (105).

The city also offers political thought a ‘re-presentation’ of its political existence (105). This presentation is specific to the city but, not dependent on the institutions associated with the city (105). This creates a utopia inherent in urban thought; one that has urban and agrarian sources (105). But Lefebvre asks, is Critias not a philosophical discourse consisting of myth, ideology and utopia (105)? In this case, myth is non-institutional discourse; ideology is the discourse of institutions; and utopia transcends the institutions by using myths (105). Non-institutional discourse, however, cannot be spoken by anyone or in any place. It requires a specific or specialist group, such as Greek philosophers (105). The triple concepts of myth, ideology and utopia create work together and require conflicts and contradictions to be managed through magic (105). Art is a form of such magic and Greek tragedy can be seen as the working out of conflicts between the city and countryside; the city gives birth to an Apollonian spirit, while the countryside gives birth to a Dionysian (106). The repetition of tragedy therefore becomes a second-order event; a controlled mimicry of the city and countryside conflict played out on the theatre stage and offering a glimpse of the future city (106). Drawing on another of Lefebvre’s primary influences, it is a Nietzschean reading of Greek tragedy mapped onto the city and countryside. The ancient city is threatened by various forces and tragic themes are attributable to the urban, just as agricultural themes were absorbed by the city (106). Tragedy, in this context, is the resolution of a series of conflicts within the ancient city: law versus custom, justice verse violence, the individual verse the brutal community (106). However, these resolutions are not urban myths, which mark the moment when the modern city begins to take shape (106). In comparison to Marxist Thought and the City, Lefebvre here focuses on the social, rather than political or economic, implications of Greek tragedy within a history of the city. It is not phases within this history, as in the first chapter, but, social and philosophical conceptions that are grounded in the city.

The Urban Revolution has a number of interesting threads that relate to various aspects of Lefebvre’s other works. As Neil Smith points out in the introduction, in many ways The Urban Revolution is a precursor to The Production of Space (xii), although grounded in the political immediacy of Paris in the late 1960s, early 1970s (xiii). However, The Urban Revolution also maintains connections with Lefebvre’s earlier Metaphilosophy (1965) and Critique of Everyday Life (vol 1: 1947, 2nd ed. 1958; vol 2: 1961). Lefebvre contextualises metaphilosophy within his discussion of urban phenomenon and the production of models (64-67). The critique of everyday life appears in discussion of urban strategies (139-140). In a way, The Urban Revolution shows the divergent themes in Lefebvre’s work focused on a particular issue, urban society. There are also several points and discussions that do not appear in the later The Production of Space, especially the discussion of nature and Heidegger’s sense of dwelling (‘habiting’). For unknown reasons, these topics are not picked-up again by Lefebvre, although Heidegger appears in the unpublished Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment (written just before The Production of Space). Further parallels will be drawn out in the discussion of those texts, but that does not lessen their importance here. Again, the emphasis in The Urban Revolution is on understanding urban society today and attempting to move beyond older modes of analysis indebted to the industrial city. In that sense, the transition from ancient city to medieval city is placed within the broader transition from the political city to the industrial city.

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