Toward an Embodied Roman Place (Space): Henri Lefebvre & Roman senses

I presented a paper yesterday, at the Senses of Place conference put on by Sensory Studies in Antiquity at Roehampton Univeristy, London. I was a bit jet-lagged so, my oral presentation was not quite as clear as I would feel it could have been. The presentation was recorded so, when the video is available I will post a link on the blog. The manscript of the presentation is posted below.

Toward an Embodied Roman (Space) Place: Henri Lefebvre’s Interpretation of Roman Senses

Jeffrey D. Veitch

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‘For reasons I am unaware of, I have always preserved a very strong sense of my own body. Stronger than the majority of those I have questioned. It is inspired by a kind of wisdom that can only be called instinctive or organic. My body knows what it wants, what it needs (even in love, although here the causes of the disturbance pile up – which could be said to be alienating). I know which boundaries mustn’t be pushed through work or fatigue, and the stress from eating and drinking. When I exceed these bounds, it’s because something is not right: I want to punish myself, destroy myself. It is to my fortunate bodily makeup that I own my unshakable health and vitality. Neither my lucidity nor my thoughts are foreign to this body; it is my body that reflects, that tries one thing or another, not an ‘I’, a ‘cogito’, a ‘subject’, a cerebrality lodged in my brain. Philosophically, this practical experience is similar to Spinoza’s arguments concerning the unity of space and thought, and the materialist statements found in Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and Nietzsche’s aphorisms in The Gay Science.

I owe to this attitude not only a kind of solidity through the labyrinth of contradictions but also an absolute resistance to the external causes of destruction and degradation. This is part of physical and mental health. I believe that it is to this that I owe my long-standing interest in space, an interest whose conceptual and theoretical formulation has taken shape very slowly, but cannot be reduced to that formulation. There is also a poetic side to this, and a poetic practice, that attempts to vivify the entire body with all its rhythms and senses (it is not a question of giving in to a nostalgia for nature or of emphasizing the use of one of our senses – sight, for example – or of exalting the sensory organs in general). In almost methodical fashion, although there is no method in the strict sense of the term, what I refer to as ‘poetic practice’ intensifies lived experience by associating it with the perceived world, by accelerating the interactions and interferences of the body and its surroundings: roads and streets, countryside and cityscape, forests and metal, lakes and streams, and stones’ (Lefebvre 2014, pp. 34-5).

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Henri Lefebvre was 72 at the time of writing, or more precisely dictating to his wife at the time, this passage and it comes at the peak of his writing on space, when he is most active in 1973-4. This was the culmination of over a decade of writing on space, urban and rural sociology and everyday life in the transition to modernisms urban totality with six books being written between 1964 and 1974. Pointedly autobiographical, the passage draws together a series of theoretical formulations that are central to what I will argue is Lefebvre’s sensory-spatial theory.

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To label Lefebvre’s spatial theory sensory is a bit at odds with common rereading of Lefebvre, which owes more to David Harvey and Ed Soja than to Lefebvre (see Harvey 1973; Soja 1989, 1996). However, at the core of this personal reflection is a theory of the senses and body in the production of space, or place-making (Yi-Fu Taun’s discussion of ‘place’ implies Lefebvre’s spatial triad, Taun 1979).

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I want to suggest that a rereading of Lefebvre, following this autobiographical passage, indicates the way the senses and body are central to his spatial theory and this theory offers key insights into our interpretation of past environments, whether built, natural or imaginary.

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As an example, or case study place, I will draw on one of Lefebvre’s own favourite examples, Rome. ‘Roman space, though encumbered by objects (as in the Forum), was a productive space’, Lefebvre states in The Production of Space (1991, p. 237). Again and again, Lefebvre draws on the ancient world in the formulation of spatial history in both Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment and The Production of Space, as well as in his other urban writings.

In this paper, I will therefore set out the central pieces for Lefebvre’s spatial-sensory theory, namely 1) the total body, 2) senses as theoreticians and 3) poetic practice drawing on Lefebvre’s own use of Roman space as an examples. At its base level, this is a combined rereading of Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment and The Production of Space, although I will open up Lefebvre’s own theoretical formulations for conversation with some more recent discussions and other theorists.

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Total Body

The total body, in Lefebvre, is made up of the spatial qualities of the body, which indicate the ambiguity of the body as occupying a space and producing a space (Lefebvre, 2014, p. 149). Lefebvre restates this duality as a natural body (physical, material, using gestures and members) and a social body (using language), as well as another duality of energetic processes (accumulation and expenditure of energy) and infrastructural process (receiving and storing information) (2014, p. 149). These two dualities are useful in setting out the place and role of the senses within Lefebvre’s total body, as well as leading to his critique of the readability of space.

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‘Among the Romans, until their long decline, we find a powerful sense of civic involvement that connected individuals to the city. The most important pleasures were experienced within the social framework; in other words, public and private were not yet separated, and the public did not yet have the unpleasant, almost ridiculous, character it has assumed in our society, where the social and socialisation are generally met with disapproval. […]

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‘Take, for example, the Baths of Diocletian in Rome. This enormous space, covering nearly fifty-seven acres, was a small city in the City of Cities, and surrounded by a vast park. Intended to cultivate the body as well as the mind, the Roman baths are one of the most original architectural creations that history has known. A succession of rooms followed one another along an axis, which served as both hallway and vestibule and which led to a gigantic open-air pool more than half an acre in size. This followed by a vaulted hall, also surrounded by pool. Around the large pool were palaestrae, gyms, and massage rooms, together with a variety of sporting and domestic paraphernalia for the patrons (client, visitor, consumer – none of the words are suitable). Once they had warmed their muscles, the patrons crossed a series of rooms, the heat increasing as one progressed, to ultimately reach the caldarium. Even today, the building themselves appear to be characterized by a degree of luxury to which our own cultural institutions and stadiums appear to descend from barbarians and puritans, more ascetic than they are subpar. What can we say about the interior? The pools were a marble lake surrounded by colonnades, covered with mosaics of which the statues were reflected. The rooms contained flowing fountains, colonnades, niches decorated with statuary; paintings and mosaics adorned the surfaces of the walls, which were covered in stucco and precious materials (onyx, porphyry, marble, ivory). The baths contained, in addition to the gymnasiums and palaestrae, a number of rooms devoted to physical development, promenades, works of art that turned those rooms into museums, and spaces for permanent exhibitions. There was also a park were visitors could meet and talk, and a public library. No one was excluded from partaking in this luxury (women were admitted on certain days) from the slave to the emperor himself, who made the baths his personal project and who was not adverse to making use of the sumptuous palace he had offered the people of Rome’ (Lefebvre 2014, pp. 136-7, emphasis my own).

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For Lefebvre, it was the cultivation of the body and mind within the gestures of bathing that produced the ‘most original architectural creation’. Body and mind within the social framework of Rome marked the spatial practice and activities.

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Lefebvre was not the only one to emphasise these aspects, although the two books shown here mark distinct differences in approach and argued meaning of architectural design. For Lefebvre, the total body of brain, gestures, sensory organs, needs to be considered, and the body’s plurality of interpretative, creative and productive processes recognised. This has implications for understanding space, as space does not present an intellectual representation, arising ‘from the visible-readable realm, but that it is first of all heard (listened to) and enacted (through physical gestures and movements)’ (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 200). MacDonald, as has been noted, emphasised the movement and action of street space in the second century CE, although I do not think his urban armature gives enough credit to physical interaction in the street space (and is dependent on the visible-readable correlation). Sennett, in contrast, wants to draw political implications for today from the physical heard and enacted space of the city. While an interesting notion, spatial histories, along with sensory histories, are much to pluralistic for such endeavours. What results is an underdeveloped imaginary of city space (in MacDonald’s case) or an overcooked political agenda set out in moral terms (Sennett).

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Lefebvre falls back on a dialectical relationship between spatial practices and productions of space, which entails a pedagogy of the senses and body. The experience of space is first and foremost the sensory perception of space. This is not to place sensory perceptions before the social and cultural spatial relations (‘proxemics’ in Hall’s terms). Certain spaces, led by the total body, provide opportunities for the body to break from the spatial and temporal constrains of labour, the division of labour, localisations of work and the specialisation of places (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 384). In this way, the physical body takes on a critical role as generative in the production of space (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 384; 2014, p. 149). In this way, the pedagogy of the body and senses is founded on the second point in Lefebvre’s spatial-sensory theory, the senses as theoreticians.

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Senses as Theoreticians

Reference is made to Marx and Nietzsche in the opening passage for their materialist approach in Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts and Nietzsche’s aphorisms. These two theorists (and Lefebvre uses them as theorists, more than as philosophers or thinkers) suggest a particular form of theoretical engagement. Although Lefebvre draws them together, I want to focus on what each provides in the next two points of Lefebvre’s spatial-sensory theory. In sum, Marx pushes for the senses as theoreticians, while Nietzsche indicates that the action of such a theorisation is poetic practice.

As active in the production of space, the senses become theoreticians. Lefebvre draws this idea from Nietzsche and Marx:

‘The truth of space thus leads us back (and is reinforced by) a powerful Nietzschean sentiment: ‘But may the will to truth mean this to you: that everything shall be transformed into the humanly-conceivable, the humanly-evident, the humanly-palpable! You should follow your own senses to the end. [Eure eignen Sinne sollt ihr zu Ende denken.]’ Marx, for his part, called in the Manuscripts of 1844 for the senses to become theoreticians in their own right. The revolutionary road of the human and the heroic road of the superhuman meet at the crossroads of space. Whether they then converge is another story’ (Lefebvre, 1991, pp. 399-400).

For Marx, the senses, and sensory organs, are not passive receptors, simply responding to what is around them. Instead, the senses, like labour, create objects and, in the cases of the senses, create reality, which is a social construction (Marx, 1992, p. 352). Following Marx, the senses are active in the creation of objects, as well as the creation of the human senses (Lefebvre, 2016, p. 127).

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The sensory organs, as conceptualised within Lefebvre’s total body, are critical theoreticians of space. The senses work on an object on the model of human labour working on raw materials. Marx makes a critical distinction between human labour and sensory perception, which is fundamental to each form of work. The distinction is that sensory transformation of the object is in terms of potential meanings, rather than the object as artefact (Feenberg, 2014, p. 46). Lefebvre, for his part, is breaking down this distinction in terms of space; human beings both produce spatial meanings and spatial artefacts. The senses can therefore be conceived as theoreticians, being both produced by the social relationships, the division of labour and gestures of work, and raising these productive relations to a critical level through the sensory perception of objects. For example, noise, as out-of-place sound, can also define the limits of understanding, being unpatterned or unknown sounds, beyond the horizon of meaning, that will in time (through repetition) become known (see Truax, 2001, p. 97).

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The mapping of transmission loss, the amount of sound that passes through a material, can therefore relate to the conceptualisation of geographical limits of auditory understanding, a literal horizon or threshold of auditory perception. In this way, the measurement of acoustic properties of architectural interventions by Augustus become measurements in conceptual and social horizons of audibility.

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Poetic Practice

Nietzsche, for Lefebvre, provides a practical and theoretical model for using ‘the body as a guide’ (Lefebvre, 2014, p. 103; see also 2016, pp. 122-26). Lefebvre comments that Nietzsche’s emphasis on visual metaphors to constitute abstract thought, which over time has reduced thoughts and actions derived from the other senses, is one of ‘Nietzsche’s great discoveries’ (1991, p. 139). We can reformulate Lefebvre’s four points, from The Production of Space, on Nietzsche’s discoveries in relation to the senses: 1) the actions of metaphor and metonymy are guided by the body’s experience of space through the senses; 2) expression of this sensory/spatial experience is constrained by an overreliance on visual metaphors, limiting language’s ability to express the total body; 3) the mental and social architecture of language, constrained by readability-visibility, is constantly reformulating connections due to the limits of its expression; 4) power, in the form of social and political structures, are aligned to visibility by the implicit reason and logic in visual metaphor and metonymy, their ‘common sense’ understanding.

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The twin critique of visual metaphors, what Lefebvre refers to as ‘visibility’, is a critique of ‘readability’. How do we ‘read’ the urban arrangement and architecture of the Roman period? Lefebvre cites Roland Barthes’ five codes for reading a text (hermeneutic, proairetic, semantic, symbolic and cultural) and applies them to the experience of Venice (Barthes, 1990; Lefebvre, 1991, pp. 160-1). This raises two unexplored areas when decoding is constrained to reading and texts (a visual object): on the one side, the body and, on the other side, the power (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 162). Due to constraints of space, I will leave power for discussion elsewhere, but I find Foucault’s use of ancient sources, especially the Stoicism of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, a interesting comparison in terms of the body, governmentality and issues of space/place. Central to the argument here, Lefebvre emphasises the body’s experience of place through the total body of the senses,

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‘[w]hen ‘Ego’ arrives in an unknown country or city, he [sic] first experiences it through every part of his body – through his sense of smell and taste, as (provided he does not limit this by remaining in his car) through his legs and feet. His hearing picks up the noises and the quality of the voices; his eyes are assailed by new impressions. For it is by means of the body that space is perceived, lived – and produced’ (1991, p. 162).

The perception of space by the body is part of spatial and social practices, which are excluded from the codes of reading and writing according to Lefebvre (Lefebvre, 2014, p. 125).

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Within this argument is a critique of certain formulations of interpreting urban forms or places. The most common, and referenced in ancient history and classical archaeology, interpretation of urban space and place along the lines of readability and visibility is Kevin Lynch’s conception of ‘urban image’ and ‘mental maps’. Lefebvre is not the only one to critique this formulation and Tim Ingold (2000) critiques Lynch’s ‘mental maps’ directly as a product of a modern cartographic conception of place:

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‘It is rather that the world of our experience is a world suspended in movement, that is continually coming into being as we – through our own movement – contribute to its formation. In the cartographic world, by contrast, all is still and silent. There is neither sunlight nor moonlight; there are no variations of light or shade, no clouds, no shadows or reflections. The wind does not blow, neither disturbing the trees nor whipping water into waves. No birds fly in the sky, or sing in the woods; forests and pastures are devoid of animal life; houses and streets are empty of people and traffic. To dismiss all this – to suggest that what is excluded in the cartographic reduction amounts, in Monmonier’s words, to a ‘fog of detail’ – is perverse, to say the least (Wood 1992: 76). For it is no less than the stuff of life itself. Were one magically transported into the looking-glass world behind the map, one would indeed feel lost and disoriented, as in a fog. But the fogginess is a function not of the amount or density of detail but of the arrestation of movement. Detached from the flow of which each is but a moment, details settle like an opaque precipitate upon the surface of the earth. Little wonder, then, that the cartographer feels the need to sweep them up, or that the navigator prefers to brush them aside in plotting a course!’ (Ingold 2000, p. 242).

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In Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, Lefebvre criticises readability through the reversal of the practice of reading (2014, p. 125). In order to read architecture, there must be an assumed message or code within the building or urban form and since it is addressed to people (another assumption), it can be read and compared to writing (Lefebvre, 2014, p. 125). Lefebvre points out, however, that in practice the operation is reversed (2014, p. 125). It is not the building or space that is decoded, but space decodes the social practices of human beings. Human beings transmit a plurality of codes, which are not all directed at the intellect, such as emotions, passions or feelings. Architectural space refracts messages in the form of injunctions, proscriptions and proscribed acts, rather than signs; that is to say, architecture refracts social and spatial practices (2014, p. 125). Architecture, in this process, intensifies certain messages and transforms them into rules and assigned gestures, spatialising social practices and defining ‘places’ (2014, p. 125). In this case, the senses are not directly referenced by Lefebvre, but can be incorporated into the process. If architecture produces living bodies, part of that production is a range of sensory hierarchies and practices. At the level above sensory perception, language of space (point 2 in the reformulation of Lefebvre’s points) is taken for experience (sensory perception of physical space) and perceived to reflect ‘common sense’ sensory hierarchies, in this case, based on visual metaphors (in modernity). This links the history of the body to the history of space through the development of the senses within a given periods, cultures or other differences in spatial practices (Lefebvre, 1991, pp. 195-6).

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The senses as theoreticians and poetic practice critique the architectures of power through the senses, body and gestures. As argued, the senses as theoreticians are tools for critical thought and open up subversive responses to the strategies of the state and power. Foucault and de Certeau hover in the background behind that last sentence and offer comparative conceptions to what I am arguing is at work in Lefebvre. In historical terms, Lefebvre argues that the senses as theoreticians reveal the logic of visualisation that developed over centuries and eventually was built into cities and urbanism and is the central point in the middle of The Production of Space. Poetic practice critiques the actions and gestures that take place within the theoretical space opened up by the total body. For Lefebvre, the issue was to draw out the active, creative and productive side of the senses and body, the total body, to open up space to all its possibilities. At the end of Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, Lefebvre suggests that the total body, sense as theoreticians and poetic practice set out a direction, echoing the ‘sense’ at the end of The Production of Space, for a revolutionary orientation of life (2014, p. 149). Here Lefebvre brings his own theory to the present situation of capitalism. For us, as ancient historians, archaeologists and classicists, the direction of such interpretations is a conceptualisation of the past. A past understood through the total body of sensory perceptions and imaginary conceptions, indicating hierarchies and strategies of power based on the senses, and enacted in the everyday sensory-spatial practices of ancient peoples.

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