The Senses as Theoreticians

I mention it regularly in my presentations that noise and sound serve as critical tools for understanding urban space, not simply as objects in space-time. Anyone who reads this blog will be aware of this distinction, as I talk more about the theoretical applications of noise to urban space, than listing the sounds and noises found in Latin lit (although, I have some graphs and resources for noise/silence terms here). However, I have run into the reference that originally clued me into this point several times recently. I want to look at that reference in detail, as it seems to me to be a crucial piece that often gets overlooked, or the implications are not fully realised.

I first encountered the idea that the senses could be theoreticians in Lefebvre (of course…) and it’s worth quoting it in full:

‘The truth of space thus leads us back (and is reinforced by) a powerful Neitzschean 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.’ (The Production of Space, 399-400)

This passage is the end of chapter 6 and precedes the final chapter ‘Openings and Conclusions’. Thus, it comes at the culmination of Lefebvre’s discussion of the truth of space, over against true space, and its relation to social practices and social relations (The Production of Space, 397-400). The importance of Marx and Nietzsche for Lefebvre’s thought is well known (see Lefebvre’s La fin de l’historie (1970); Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche ou le royaume des ombres (1975); Koffman and Lebas intro in Writings on Cities (1996)) and he suggests that part of the connection between subversive Nietzschean and revolutionary Marxist thought through the truth of space. In contrast to true space, the truths of space of connect social practice to mental concepts and show how knowledge, consciousness and social practice share a common centre (The Production of Space, 399). This centre is a concentration of energies, a focus or core and a dialectic: ‘What is the ‘subject’? A momentary centre. The ‘object’? Likewise. The body? A focusing of active (productive) energies. The city? The urban sphere? Ditto’ (ibid, 399). For Lefebvre, this concentration, focus of energy and dialectical relationship emphasises centrality as key to mental and/or social space (ibid, 331-2; 399).

Centrality is defined by a ‘gathering and meeting of whatever coexists in a given space’, which makes it a form, although empty of content in itself, in geographical space (ibid, 331). This empty form of centrality also implies mobility (ibid, 332). What marks present society from ancient society is the aspiration of centrality to totality (Lefebvre refs to ancient Greece in this passage and the work of Jean-Pierre Vernant, ibid, 332). Centrality becomes centralisation in modern society. Returning to the senses as theoreticians, centrality as a spatial form, empty of content, and mobile is parallel to the sensory organs within the human body. This point needs fleshing out and for that we return to Marx’s point in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscript of 1844.

Marx’s line comes from the second manuscript, which formed an appendix titled ‘Private Property and Communism’. The section is broken into five elements in a definition of communism, although two different forms of communism are discussed. The first two points pertain to what Marx calls crude-communism and the third to fifth points relate to Marx’s own conception of communism.

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, reality. That is the senses are active in the creation of objects, as a historical evolution of human being (see Feenberg, The Philosophy of Praxis, 45-6). The senses, in this way, 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 (The Philosophy of Praxis, 46).

What Marx argues against is that in capitalist society appropriation of things is only conceived in terms of possession (Early Writings, 351-2). This is why the discussion of human senses, and sense organs, comes in the midst of the discussion of private property. Marx argues for an opening up of the concept of appropriation to include all human relations, listing ‘seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting feeling, thinking, contemplating, sensing, wanting, acting, loving’ (ibid, 351). Objects are appropriated through the senses, which does not always involve possession (in the majority of cases it does not).

Lefebvre links Marx’s idea of appropriation by the sense organs to use value and accumulation (The Production of Space, 179). The human being accumulates minimal and massive types of energy and disposes of minimal and massive amounts of energy. Sensory organs function on the level of minimal types of energy disposal, which correspond to forms of information processing (in conjunction with the brain). Massive forms of energy disposal include the muscular system or sexual organs. Lefebvre is right to note that these two forms of energy are not strictly separable (ibid, 179). This conception of the sensory organs parallels centrality as the space of accumulation of energy and its disposal in rupture, explosion or being rent apart (ibid, 332-3). What is underdeveloped in these parallel conceptions is the role of mobility and movement by the human body in the perception of space.

By comparison, Tim Ingold sets sensory perception not inside the head (an essentially mental activity ‘performed upon the raw material of sensation’, The Perception of the Environment, 244), but rather ‘sensory awareness rides on the cusp of the very movement of the world’s coming-into-being’ (ibid, 245). For Ingold, the separation of, and preference for, vision over hearing in Western thought has further reduced the role of movement in perception.

Returning to Lefebvre, these types of energy, both minimal and massive, are mobile around the human body, while the human needs stable apparatuses to capture these energies (Lefebvre’s point), the process of capturing these energies is dependent on movement (Ingold’s point). Lefebvre is less concerned with movement and, instead, interested in the relationship between the human body and space. The accumulation of energy by the human body before it acts constitutes a defining aspect of the relationship between the human and space (The Production of Space, 179). ‘Productive’ expenditure of energy is any energy expenditure that effects some change in the world (ibid, 179). For the human being, this implies a relationship to oneself, which makes this productive expenditure of energy a reproductive expenditure that constitutes social life. Movement, however, is best understood as a productive expenditure of energy, one which is guided by sensory modalities, as Ingold points out. Ingold’s emphasis on movement as the ground for perception can be aligned with Lefebvre’s argument that the human body and urban centrality are sites of accumulation of energy, which are spatial and temporal. What I suggest, and interests me, is that Lefebvre and Ingold should be read in conjunction and that movement is the process through which sensory information is accumulated in the human body from its interaction in space. The senses are the mediating organs in the process of interpreting social and mental space, and simultaneously human relationships to space. This is the production of space through the senses, which was the point we began with. The senses are theoreticians for interpreting social relationships, the mental conceptions of space and interactions between individuals in daily practices.

At the foundation of such a theoretical endeavour are movement, space and the senses. The three elements are in relationship; a dialectical relationship that includes the physical, mental and social space, which is interpreted and reproduced through the senses and movement.

Bibliography

  1. Feenberg (2014) The Philosophy of Praxis:Marx, Lukács and the Frankfurt School (Verso).
  2. Indgold (2011) The Perception of the Environment: Essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill (Routledge).
  3. Lefebvre (1991) The Production of Space. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Blackwell).
  4. Marx (1992) Early Writings. Translated by Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton (Penguin Classics).

Lefebvre Update

Regular readers will know that I have an ongoing series on Henri Lefebvre’s use of the ancient city and Roman spaces in his writings. I have not posted a reading in some time, as I have been busy with presentations, writing deadlines and, a much needed, vacation. While on vacation last week, I picked up a couple of books, as well as ordering a few copies, that all pertain to this work. I ordered copies of The Sociology of Marx (1966) and The Explosion: Marxism and the French Upheaval (1968), both 1969 publications in English translation, and on vacation, I picked up Introduction to Modernity (1962). I have read all of these, but did not have my own copies. I found Lukasz Stanek’s Henri Lefebvre on Space, which I did not expect to find.

I am writing my next post on a series of publications from 1968, which is traditionally the start of Lefebvre’s main decade of writing on urbanism. Some of the previous posts argue against this traditional reading, as does the Seventh Prelude in Introduction to Modernity is ‘Notes on the New Town’ and Metaphilosophy (1965) lays out a history of the city.  However, 1968 does see increase in publications on specific topics relating to urbanism and leads towards Lefebvre’s theory of the production of space. As I have some writing deadlines quickly approaching, the post is not top of the priorty list.

The Roman City in Motion Presentation Kiel, Germany

Image: North Cardo Maximus, facing south towards the forum, at Ostia (Jeff Veitch)

I am in Germany for an international workshop (details here) and presented some of my work on porticoes. Unlike the majority of presentations last year, I presented from a manuscript, as I wanted to stay focused on some key points of discussion. I had not originally planned to discuss porticoes (was going to save it for another paper), but did not have the time to develop my work on the Vicus Iugarius in Rome to a presentable point.  The majority of questions following the paper were aspects of clarification, many of which were due to my ownpresentation style. I continually struggle with a good balance between spatial theory, physics of sound, and my case studies. In this paper there is a clear preference on the theoretical framework, at the expense of the physics of sound and sound analysis. I have included a summary of the discussion following the paper at the end.

The Roman City in Motion: Senses, Space and Experience

Jeffrey D. Veitch, University of Kent

[Title Slide] Thanks to the organisers of the session and to you all for being here.

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Image: Lefebvre on Roman space

[Lefebvre Rome] At several points, Henri Lefebvre makes reference to two topics taken up in this paper: the senses and Roman space, although neither is in reference to the other. For Lefebvre, following Nietzsche and Marx, the senses are theoretical tools for understanding space,[1] while Rome serves as a concrete example of the social production of space within Lefebvre’s history of the city.[2] In this paper, I take Lefebvre’s twin suggestions as a starting point for a theoretically informed interpretation of Roman urbanism. That is to say, the senses serve as tools for understanding the reciprocal influence of the body and space in the formation of urban experience.

Using the senses as a theoretical tool, following Lefebvre, I want to make this argument: by placing the sensory experience of street acoustics under the microscope, I argue for an experiential agency of portico space that is shaped by physical architecture, bodily movements and literary perceptions. Each of these aspects will be addressed in that order and set the framework for the argument of this paper. In this way, I draw together the two elements of Lefebvre’s suggestions and argue for experiential agency as sensory perceptions of urban space and its formation of the Roman sensorium.

The Senses as Kinaesthetic Tools

[Lefebvre books] Let us begin by listening to Lefebvre and bringing his insights in line with recent emphasis on kinaesthetic and embodied forms of knowledge. Recent studies of Roman space and spatial concepts have drawn primarily from the work of Henri Lefebvre. Writing in the late 1960s to mid-1970s, Lefebvre formulated the groundwork for what was letter termed the ‘spatial turn’(See Harvey, Social Justice and the City (University of Georgia 1973); Soja, Postmodern Geographies (Verso 1989)). Lefebvre suggests a ‘pedagogy of the body’ that ‘would connect the conceived to the lived (and conversely), assumes a form of qualitative knowledge still in a state of germination and promise. Rhythmanalysis, for example’.[7] The invocation of rhythmanalysis draws the senses and times into this ‘pedagogy of the body’, as the rhythmanalist ‘thinks with his [sic] body’.[8] This further elaborates the nature of Lefebvre’s tripartite division of space between the conceived, perceived, and lived. The knowledge derived from the connection of the conceived and lived is sensory knowledge. Lefebvre draws on smells and musical metaphors to describe the rhythmanalist’s methods and emphasises the measurement of space by the body.[9]

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Image: Libet Diagram (Source on the slide)

Lefebvre does not develop these ideas into a method and they are scattered throughout his diverse writings. Here I want to draw in some more work, which grounds these ideas in movement and embodiment. [Libet Diagram] By the end of the 1970s, several experiments had verified that between an event and our sensory experience there was a half-second delay.[11] In following experiments it was further confirmed that unconscious reactions had delays of 100 ms, or a tenth-of-a-second delay.[12] What this suggested is that conscious reflection or action based on sensory stimuli was, in fact, a reflection on a past event, all be it a very recent past event.[13] To put this in Lefebvrean terms, lived space precedes conceived space in its mediation by the senses. Or simply, we sense the world before we act, think or reflect on that world.

This places human agency at the start of interactions with the built environment, rather than beginning with language or thought. I like the emphasis on agency; performative acts do ‘something’ to space (I am also keen to keep the ‘something’ ambiguous). Here reflexivity becomes important, especially in terms of atmosphere and the social action of participants. I want to extend the reflexivity to the space of action, as well as the action itself. The reflexivity of architecture coincides with the reflexivity of the senses.[15] In my own work, I stress the role of architecture in social construction based on auditory experience; the human bodies auditory system interprets space in the act of hearing. At the same time, what, where, and how we hear are part of the social and cultural understandings (habitus) we learn through repetitive experience of space.

Interpreting Streets through the Senses

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Image: AC & TL Diagram (Veitch 2017)

[AC & TL] The embodied knowledge carried within a cities inhabitant’s places agency as central to knowledge formation.[16] Simply put, human agents create the social, cultural and physical world through sensory experience, first unconsciously and then through cognitive reflection. However for Romans to be social agents a mass of infrastructural material must already be in place.[17] The infrastructural materials can be assessed and measured to analyse the kinaesthetic experience in terms of comparative figures. Physical dimensions and construction materials shape the auditory experience of the streets, which can be measured using modern acoustic design tools.

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Image: Eleanor Betts recent publication (Routledge 2017)

[EB Book] In my chapter in Eleanor Betts’ recent publication, I focus on Absorption Coefficient (AC) and Transmission Loss (TL). I explain the physics of these measurements in that chapter and here point out the basic difference as sound reflected, AC, or sound passing through the material, TL.[18] [Augustus] The reflection, resonance and other auditory effects of sound create the experience the body interprets in the half-second delay. These auditory effects are directly related to the dimensions, size and shape of urban space. In particular, I want to look at the basic architectural structure of streets in Ostia, with some comparisons to Pompeii and Rome, to assess the kinaesthetic experience and knowledge potentially created.

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Image: Streets and Shops in Ostia (Veitch 2017)

[Ostia] At the scale of the city, by the second century CE Ostia had developed beyond any formal grid system. However other forms of standardisation were at work within Ostia. Ellis has shown a clear preference in Ostia for shop entrances on the right-hand side of the threshold.[19] Street widths in Ostia display an uneven geographical distribution, same as Pompeii, although with a clear preference in width of 4-6 m.[20] However Ostia has a limited number of streets roughly 8 m in width, the other major grouping in Pompeii.[21] Instead, 94% of the streets in Ostia are less than 7 m in width. The widespread use of basalt on streets across Ostia suggests a certain foundational auditory experience, as the absorption coefficient is low (0.01-0.02) and sound would reflect off the surface.

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Image: Streets and Porticoes in Ostia (Veitch 2017)

In terms of auditory experience, the limited range of widths in Ostia suggests building height and architectural elements being prime motivators of auditory differences. Unlike Pompeii, street architecture, such as benches and sidewalks, are primarily reconstructed and there are limited remains for analysis. [Portico map] Porticoes appear in Ostia, although again, in an uneven geographical distribution across the city. Beginning in the early 2nd c. CE, several large-scale building projects, with associated porticoes, began to reshape the city’s urban experience.[22] Unlike benches, fountains, or shrines, porticoes create a space of experience defined by the architecture. The semi-enclosed area is experienced as acoustically separated space from the roadway beyond, even as sounds will pass between the two auditory fields. In this way, the two auditory fields influence each other. Sounds from one bleed into the other. What becomes an issue is the terminology and language of description, which we will return to at the end.

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Image: Sound Dissipation on 3 Streets in Ostia (Veitch 2017)

[Sound dissipation] Turning to the kinaesthetic experience of porticoes and streets in Ostia, the acoustic properties of street canyons can be modelled using based on the materials and dimensions of the street. Here the sound dissipation on 3 streets, all with porticoes along some part, is modelled. Measurement is made based on a noise in the centre of the street. The Decumanus is the widest (10 m), while the N Cardo is the only street with porticoes on both sides for the whole length (130 m). What the graph indicates is the steep dissipation of sound in the Decumanus, while N Cardo mimics this experience due to the addition of porticoes. In the case of the Via Epagathiana, with a portico on one side and for a limited length the dissipation is skewed on one side of the graph. However, the experience of sound in all three streets shows similar trends. Chronologically, the N Cardo is the earliest large-scale redevelopment with a portico as a defining feature in Ostia (116 CE). Porticoes are constructed along the neighbouring Via dei Misuratori del Grano and Via della Fortuna the next year (117-8 CE), while the forum is finished in the 120s.[23]

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Image: Chronology of Porticoes and large-scale building projects (based on DeLaine 2002)

[Portico chronology] It is worth briefly concluding on the chronology of porticoes and shop standardisation outside of Ostia. Pompeii does not have any porticoes along it’s streets in the 79 CE plan. Rome, on the other hand, sees two distinctive groupings of portico construction, namely the late Republican/Augustan period and the Flavian period.[24] However these porticoes were a distinct architectural form, one that does not continue after the Flavian’s in Rome.[25] In roughly the same time period, the regulation of street porticoes is prescribed following the 64 CE fire in Rome.[26] While the literary sources, from the 2nd c. CE (Tacitus and Suetonius), set the motivation for porticoes in the need to control and prevent fires, it is worth noting that it is in the same time period as the last series of portico structures. Here the distinction between experience, in the streets of the 2nd c. CE, and narrative reflection, instigated in the 1st c. CE, is evident. Returning to Ostia, it is not during the Flavian period that porticoes begin to appear but rather at the start of the 2nd c. CE. That is to say, the experience of the portico street was an experience in Rome that reappeared between Pompeii’s destruction and the start of Ostia’s large scale rebuilding.

That the auditory experience is important is obvious, however the connection of that importance to understandings of Roman space is subtler. At the start of this paper, I drew on Lefebvre’s suggestions to use the senses as theoretical tools and the role of Rome in the production of (social) space. Porticoes, I argue, serve to bring together these two points. I noted the unconscious experience of space as being the first point of interaction between humans and the built environment. In the case of the N Cardo, the two porticoes lining the street created a comparable auditory experience to the wider and more limited portico frontage along the east Decumanus. The Via Epagathiana showed the way portico frontage, in that case on the west side, altered the auditory experience of the street. Further study of other streets and porticoes will nuance these findings further.

Conclusions

[Concluding slide] Finally, I want to end with a brief comment on sensory and spatial metaphors as ways of describing the changes in perception. Out of the experience of space, and in particular the changing experience of streets at the end of the first, beginning of the second century CE, Romans perceived of space differently, although not in complete rejection of previous perception.

The associations and metaphors used to describe this translation of experience into literature give clues to the power these experiences could have. Today, we rely on visual and spatial metaphors to describe social relations and urban environments; cities are images, the public eye, we ‘map’ and ‘explore’ social relations and networks. However, these visual and spatial metaphors reduce spatial and social relationships to static and abstract understandings.[29] In the translation of experiences of space to literary reflection vision is given power over other sensory experience.

In the Latin literary context, the verb incedo and its noun incessus refer to walking, which also carries associations with bearing or how one carries oneself.[30] The association of movement with comportment is key. In moving through the city, inhabitants carried themselves, or, in Bourdieu’s terms, enacted their habitus. By drawing movement and comportment together the metaphor places the power on walking, not seeing. The person walking/carrying themselves is the subject. What are necessary are a need to critically evaluate the experience of space, as I have tried to show, as well as the metaphorical conceptions of space. Non-visual, sensory metaphors offer a way forward in understanding the metaphorical architecture of Roman urbanism.

Discussion:

1. If sounds could happen anywhere on the street or in the portico, why is the model based on a sound in the centre of the street? i.e. carts, sellers in the portico, people walking in the street or in the portico.

The model of the acoustics is based on generic sound (white noise, or sound across all frequencies) in a fixed location. This gives us the acoustic foundation from which we can then move to particular sounds. In this paper, I focused on the architecture along the street and the role of porticoes in altering street acoustics. I was less concerned with the catalogue of sounds possibly produced along the street.

2. As a medievalist, we have evidence for mud and dirt along streets and these would dampen sound. Is there any evidence of this in the Roman period?

Short answer: no. There are anecdotal stories of magistrates not cleaning streets (Suetonius, Vespasian 5), legal regulations of what can be left outside of properties (Dig. 43.11.1.1), duties for magistrates to clean and maintain streets and sewers (Dig. 43.23.1-2). Mud and dirt would dampen the sound dissipation of the streets.

[Later thought: this dampening would suggest that the sound dissipation curves for the N Cardo and Via Epagathiana would decrease at the top, moving closer to the Decumanus curve. In the case of the Decumanus, the dampening would happen at the edges of the curve, due to the streets extended length]

3. I am working on urban ecology, what would be the role of birds in your analysis or are there any studies on bird noise?

I do not know of any studies of bird noises in Rome. Particular sounds, such as bird noises, can be modelled in the street space. These would produce different sound dissipation curves to the ones I showed.

4. a) You do not use the term ‘soundscape’ but surely it plays a part in the social porduction of space; b) you ended with [Latin] words, but these would be aspects of the perceived sense, in a theoretical definition of ‘perception’. For example, my husband could snore and this sound would bother me, but may not bother others.

First, soundscapes: I am growing uncomfortable with the term [although, I have used it in publications]. I find its use unclear in defining its geographical extent and it being associated with cataloging all the sounds in a space (again, without reference to the flexibility of this term). That leads to the second point. Yes, ‘perception’ is culturally constituted and that is why I looked to Roman usage of metaphorical walking was associated with comportment. This offers a critique of our own reliance on visual metaphors to describe cities and urban space.

Footnotes:

[1] Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Blackwell 1991), 399-400; a point also made by Terry Eagleton but with no reference to Lefebvre, Eagleton, Materialism (Yale 2017), 62-3.

[2] cité: Lefebvre, Metaphilosophy (Verso 2016), 142, 209-215; The Production of Space (Blackwell 1991), 239; see my own review of Lefebvre’s use of Rome and the ancient city at Ancient Noise (blog, jeffdveitch.me).

[3] Laurence, Roman Pompeii: Space and Society, 2nd ed. (Routledge 2007), 103.

[4] Laurence, Roman Pompeii: Space and Society, 2nd ed. (Routledge 2007), 107-9.

[5] Poehler, ‘Measuring the Movement Economy: A Network Analysis of Pompeii’, in Flohr and Wilson (eds.), The Economy of Pompeii (OUP 2017), 204.

[6] Poehler, ‘Measuring the Movement Economy: A Network Analysis of Pompeii’, in Flohr and Wilson (eds.), The Economy of Pompeii (OUP 2017), 204.

[7] Lefebvre, Towards an Architecture of Enjoyment (University of Minnesota 2014), 149.

[8] Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life (Bloomsbury 2013), 21.

[9] Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life (Bloomsbury 2013), 21, 27, 33.

[10] Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life (Bloomsbury 2013), 32; cf. Lebas and Kaufman, ‘Lost in Transposition – Time, Space and the City’, in Writings on Cities (Blackwell 1996).

[11] See Libet et al, ‘Subjective referral of the timing for a conscious sensory experience: A functional role for the somatosensory specific projection system in man’ Brain 102 (1979), 191–222.

[12] Libet et al, ‘Subjective referral of the timing for a conscious sensory experience: A functional role for the somatosensory specific projection system in man’ Brain 102 (1979), 191–222.

[13] See also Thrift, Non-Representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect (Routledge 2008).

[14] Lefebvre, Towards an Architecture of Enjoyment (University of Minnesota 2014), 151.

[15] Lefebvre, Towards an Architecture of Enjoyment (University of Minnesota 2014), 41.

[16] Eagleton, Materialism (Yale 2017), 65-6.

[17] Eagleton, Materialism (Yale 2017), 67.

[18] See Veitch, ‘Soundscape of the Street: Architectural Acoustics at Ostia, in Betts (ed) Senses of the Empire: Multisensory Approaches to Roman Culture (Routledge 2017), 54-70.

[19] Ellis, ‘Pes Dexter: Superstition and the State in the Shaping of Shopfronts and Street Activity in the Roman World’, in Laurence and Newsome (eds.) Rome, Ostia, Pompeii: Movement and Space (OUP 2011), 160-173.

[20] Pompeii, Hartnett, ‘Si quis hic sederit: Streetside Benches and Urban Society in Pompeii’, AJA (2008), 110.

[21] Pompeii, Hartnett, ‘Si quis hic sederit: Streetside Benches and Urban Society in Pompeii’, AJA (2008), 110; Ostia, Veitch, Acoustics in Roman Ostia (unpub. PhD).

[22] See DeLaine, ‘Building Activity in Ostia in the second century AD’ in Bruun and Gallina-Zevi (eds.) Ostia e Portus nelle loro relazioni con Roma (AIRF 2002), 41-102 for discussion of large-scale building at this time.

[23] See DeLaine, ‘Building Activity in Ostia in the second century AD’ in Bruun and Gallina-Zevi (eds.) Ostia e Portus nelle loro relazioni con Roma (AIRF 2002), 41-102 for dates.

[24] Macaulay-Lewis, ‘The City in Motion: Walking for Transport and Leisure in the City of Rome’, in Laurence and Newsome (eds.) Rome, Ostia, Pompeii: Movement and Space (OUP 2011), 274.

[25] Macaulay-Lewis, ‘The City in Motion: Walking for Transport and Leisure in the City of Rome’, in Laurence and Newsome (eds.) Rome, Ostia, Pompeii: Movement and Space (OUP 2011), 274-5.

[26] Tacitus Annales 15.43.1-2; Suetonius Nero 16.

[27] Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Blackwell 1991), 40.

[28] Agricola 19-21⁠; Laurence and Trifilò, ‘The Global and the Local in the Roman Empire’, in Pitts and Versluys (eds.) Globalisation and the Roman Empire (CUP 2015), 103.

[29] See Smith and Katz, Grounding Metaphor: Towards a spatialised politics’, in Keith and Pile (eds.) Place and the Politics of Identity (Routledge 1993), 67-83; Massey, Space, Place and Gender (Polity 2002).

[30] Jenkyns, God, Space and City in the Roman Imagination (OUP 2013), 148.

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.

Marxist Thought & the [Ancient] City

This is the first post in a series discussing Lefebvre’s use of ancient Rome in his writings. You can find a brief description of the project here. Page numbers refer to the new English translation by Robert Bononno with forward by Stuart Elden, available here.

Originally published in 1972, Marxist Thought and the City came out in the period when Lefebvre was most occupied with the city and urban questions. As we will see, the majority of writings, which make reference to the ancient city, are from the mid-1960s to mid-70s. It is interesting to trace the strands of thought in Lefebvre that draw on the ancient city, as they weave multiple threads, rather than a single line. My own interests in urban history, Roman urbanism and theoretical approaches to the city made Lefebvre a natural source for critically questioning ideas and concepts of space. It has become common to cite The Production of Space in studies of Roman urbanism, although these citations are never to Lefebvre’s use of ancient materials and rather references to either the challenge in defining space or his tripartite division of space in the first chapter. Therefore, this series of posts hopes to draw attention to the way the ancient city and space are part of Lefebvre’s historical work and, which has more to say about ancient urbanism than is usually given credit.

In Marxist Thought and the City, Lefebvre traces the fragmentary references to the city and urban problems in the works of Marx and Engels. While described as Lefebvre’s most theoretical work on the city, it is heavily indebted to Marxist thought in general, and Marx’s own writing in particular. Lefebvre notes the limited and fragmentary nature of references at the outset (xv). Thus, Marxist Thought and the City forms a ‘thematic rereading’ of Marx and Engels on the city and the urban problematic within the context of historical materialism (xv). Within this thematic rereading, reference is made to the ancient city within the conceptualisation of history and praxis (26-31). In general, discussion focuses on the ‘ancient city’ as a phase in the history of capitalism, rather than the particulars of Greek or Roman cities, as seen in Lefebvre’s other writings (like The Production of Space or Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment). For these reasons, Marxist Thought and the City provides an introduction to one strand of Lefebvre’s engagement with the ancient world, namely the city within the history of capitalism. In some of his other writings, Roman space and cities are discussed as comparative examples in the production of space and as part of the history of the city.

The first chapter, ‘The Situation of the Working Class in England’, looks at the early work of Engels and Lefebvre notes the twofold centralisation within the city that Engels analyses within capitalism: the concentration of population accompanies a concentration of capital (3). All the elements of industry are gathered in the city and, in England, every industrial region is a single city (3). Lefebvre draws out the important differences in Marx and Engels approaches. For Marx, current events clarify the past. The relationship between city and country in the ancient and Medieval periods follows from the differentiation of people from animals through labour in the opening of The German Ideology (6). Engels has a less retrospective view, focusing on modern cities to a level Marx never does (6). Throughout the book, the city of antiquity is seen in contrast to the city of the Middle Ages: ‘Antiquity began with the city while the Middle Ages (Western, European) began with the countryside’ (29). This overarching theme, of antiquity and the Middle Ages, is part of the Marxist tradition inherited by Lefebvre (see his other formulations of the history of the city, Metaphilosophy 2016: 143-4) and the city/countryside conflict is part of Marx’s emphasis in historical materialism (6). Particularities in the Roman or Greek city are not discussed in the book and references remain at the level of ‘ancient city’.

In the second chapter, the division of labour is discussed in terms of its urban aspects. Again, starting from the opening of The German Ideology, production includes reproduction of a way of life (27). The conflict between city and countryside resurfaces, as their separation is the division of labour (28). The quote above on antiquity beginning with the city follows this idea. In antiquity, political cities organised, dominated, protected, administered and exploited their surrounding territories (29). In the case of Greece and Rome, warfare and exchange were exercised to dominate a territory much larger than the cities immediate environment. For Lefebvre, the only major conflict was slaves and citizens in the urban growth of the ancient city (29). In the Middle Ages, these relationships are inverted.

The city serves as the subject of history in Marx and Engels (36-7). The city is introduced by a series of characteristics: a) the city concentrates not only the population, but also that which creates a society (institutions, organisations, instruments of production, capital, needs and pleasures); b) the separation of city and countryside reflects the separation of material and intellectual division of labour. The countryside provides material labour devoid of intellect, while the city provides labour enriched through intellect (37); c) the separation of city and countryside can and must be overcome, same as the division of labour (38). The city-country relationship is a returning theme within throughout the text. Much of the chapter is taken up discussing the city and country division and its relation to the division of labour. There are a number of points worth detailing, but much of it moves way from the ancient city.

Chapter three, ‘Critique of Political Economy’, has the most extensive discussion of the ancient city. Lefebvre begins summarising his argument so far. The transition from the dissolution of the feudal mode of production to capitalism was associated with a subject: the city (60). In comparison with the ‘Asiatic mode of production’, the European West reveals a form of transition from agricultural communities (71-4). The particularities of the Western city’s lineage are tied to the city as a laboratory where nature is an active agent in the development of the city (72-3) and community being detached from nature by nomadism, migration and instability (73-4). The detachment of the social being from nature (nomadism), which leads to warfare as the communal task of such societies (74). In this case, the city is the base of military organisation, while the severing of the immediate connection to nature means the city takes on a characteristic of mediation (75). The ancient urban republics prospered as the individual was placed in a condition were self-substance, the individuals own reproduction as a member of the community, was necessary, not the accumulation of wealth (75).

Drawing on the Grundrisse, the ancient city appears as the second line of development and decline (the first being the oriental city and the third that of the ‘barbarian German’, 77). What separates these lines of development and decline are the forms of ownership (77). The ancient city has two distinct forms of ownership united in the city: private property of the individual and public property, the ager publicus (77). A bipartite relationship is created where an individual is both an equal member of the community (citizen) and an owner. The social unit assumes a communal form, as well as ownership assumes a particular mode of production and relationships among individuals and between their totality and nature (80). What follows is the community as the ‘first great productive force’ (80). The loss of this bipartite relationship is inevitable and in the ancient city it dissolved the mode of production on which the community was based, and with it what made the individual Roman (80).

That is the ancient city politically dominated the countryside, but the countryside economically dominated the city (78). This tension lead to the breakdown of the city (78). Here in using different examples, the dissolution of the relationships between different elements of production gives way to relations of domination (82). In the ancient city, this produced plebeians, ‘demanding bread and circuses’ (82). Relations of domination and servitude are, thus, part of the decay of relations of ownership and production and were, according to Lefebvre, prevalent in Imperial Rome (82).

In the final chapters, Lefebvre turns to ‘Engels and Utopia’ and ‘Capital and Land Ownership’. These studies are full of interesting points, but do not engage with the ‘ancient city’ to the extent of chapter three. In particular, at the end of chapter five (‘Capital and Land Ownership’), Lefebvre lays out how the city is the site, or sites, par excellence of reproduction, which is larger and more complex than production (143). It is apparent in this closing remark that the Lefebvre is thinking in terms of a broader definition of production, one that he sets out in various places. Parallel broad definitions are found in Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment and The Production of Space. For Lefebvre, the city is the site of the reproduction of social relations, as well as the link between the terms of production and labour. In terms of the Roman city, Lefebvre will continue to draw relate the physical city to the social relations, even if at times in a dated scholarly fashion. Marxist Thought and the City offers a good introduction to many of the themes and concepts Lefebvre expands in other writings, as well as placing the ancient city within his own theoretical approach.

Lefebvre & Ancient Space

I have added a new menu item and page for Henri Lefebvre Resources and Lefebvre & Ancient Space. If you follow me on Twitter or have heard me present, then you will be aware of my use and interest in Henri Lefebvre’s work on everyday life, urbanism and production of space. I often begin presentations with a quote from Rhythmanalysis, as it nicely encapsulates several of my interests (below). In my readings of Lefebvre, I have pulled together his references to ancient cities and Roman culture, society, and buildings, which will be part of a side-project on Lefebvre’s use of ancient sources. This side-project draw on some of the theoretical work that did not make it into my PhD and, on the ‘Lefebvre & Ancient Space’ page, I have listed some of the key texts where Lefebvre discusses Roman and ancient space and I will be posting readings of some of these texts throughout the writing process.

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I was recently asked why Lefebvre? A question that seems to implicitly ask either do you understand it or why Marx? Lefebvre is challenging, although the more I read his other works beyond The Production of Space the easier I find him to be (creating a nice feedback loop). I find him a useful theoretician for three reasons, which do not answer whether I understand him (I am pretty sure I get some bits of his diverse work) and partially answer why Marx (Lefebvre is doing something quite distinct with Marxist thought so, the simple conflation can be misleading or simply wrong).

First, his spatial schema (Chapter 1 in The Production of Space) has been useful in thinking about the way different types of evidence can be understood. Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment is an application of Lefebvre’s own schema to the practice of architecture and the development of ‘enjoyment’ spaces (written the year before The Production of Space was originally published). The schema allows for the separation of different sources into material space, representations of space and spaces of representation, allowing their analysis before being brought back together to understand their dialectical relationship (the later chapters in The Production of Space, although these are more historical developments towards contemporary ‘production of space’). The separation and analysis is useful in asking critical questions about the types of sources and our scholarly assumptions, which we bring to those sources. David Harvey (in ‘Space as a Keyword’) sets up a matrix of spatial categories using Lefebvre and his own categories. Such conceptual tools were helpful in my research into the way different sources address the relationship between sound and ancient urban space.

Second, I encountered Lefebvre through Ed Soja’s Postmodern Geographies, which I read during my first master’s. At the time, I was working through a variety of critical theories and had a growing interest in geographical questions. I was caught by the adaptability of Lefebvre’s approach to various circumstances, although it took some time to really grasp what Lefebvre was getting at. Later when I started my PhD, I began looking at Lefebvre’s work on everyday life, as my initial PhD project was on neighbourhoods and ‘everyday life’ in the ancient Rome. It was in going through Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life that I started to pick-up on his use of the senses and started to conceive of his urban studies within his work on everyday life.

Finally, I found Lefebvre’s unsystematic, but always present use of the senses inviting. As my PhD research moved into sound and acoustics, I found in Lefebvre a possibility of theorising sensory space. That is, of applying Lefebvre’s understanding of the production of space to the bodies perception of urban space. Lefebvre utilises sensory perception in a variety of his writings and these diverse fragments make-up a considerable ‘theory’ of perception and conception of space. Lefebvre himself never fully develops these fragments, instead they echo throughout his writings. In these ways, Lefebvre provided both a critical tool and opened up a theoretical space for my own work on the role of acoustics in shaping social interaction and the reproduction of social space.

In this side-project, I want to turn to Lefebvre’s historical work and focus on his use of ancient sources. In particular, ancient cities and Rome are a featured case study in the history of the city and urbanism, as well as the historical development of ‘the production of space’. These case studies all come from publications in the mid-60s to mid-70s. Today, in Classical Studies, The Production of Space is referenced (quite regularly) in passing, usually in a nod to the importance of the word ‘space’ or to point out the complexity in definitions of space. Engagement with Lefebvre’s work however is minimal and this project hopes to provide a nuanced and critical reading of the role of ancient Rome in his thought. I will (sporadically) post some commentaries on ‘key texts’ in which reference to ancient cities and Rome appear.

Along with resources for my own work, I have also put several links to Stuart Elden’s blog Progressive Geographies. He has some very useful resources for getting into Lefebvre’s work, as well as his own introduction to Lefebvre, Understanding Henri Lefebvre. It is worth pointing out the most recent issue of Foucault Studies has a themed section on Foucault and Roman Antiquity: Foucault’s Rome, edited by Richard Alston and Shreyaa Bhatt. I have not had a chance to read the articles yet, but they are on my list and will likely have some overlap with my Lefebvre work.