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.


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.

KISS Inaugural Lecture, University of Kent: Alan Penn ‘Architectural Space and Social Action: How does the built environment relate to human society?’

‘Buildings, or cities, are different from different points of view.’ –A. Penn

On Wednesday, I was in Canterbury for the KISS (Kent Interdisciplinary Centre for Spatial Studies) Inaugural Lecture given by Alan Penn, Dean of the UCL Bartlett School of Architecture. The lecture introduced the concept and basic form of analysis know as Space Syntax. I have used Space Syntax in my own research and it serves as a sounding board for the acoustic analysis I undertook in my PhD. Space Syntax is one of analysing, and more importantly discussing, the micro-macro movements of people in space. That is Space Syntax analysis focuses on the relationship between a single space (room, street segment, etc.) and the whole (building, neighbourhood, region, city) in terms of movement. In this reflection, I want to draw out the way the senses serve as critical tool in interpreting the micro-macro experience of space.

To start out, I should be clear that I find Space Syntax to be a very fruitful tool to think about space. The basis of the analysis is movement through space and in time. The combination of space-time is a necessary starting point for any understanding of urban experience. In the field of Classical Archaeology, a professed ‘spatial turn’ has happened (although, many think it is just now starting). The emphasis, therefore is on space, not time. In my own work, time is just as important. Sound happens in space, but, more importantly, it happens in time. Following Doreen Massey, I seek to emphasise the combination, space-time, as the key to understanding urban soundscapes (see Massey 1994). Space Syntax has a slightly different, although parallel focus, on movement in space-time. In Space Syntax terms, ‘integration’ defines the relationship between a single space and the whole. Thus, the integration value also serves as a space-time measure, as more integrated spaces are more easily accessible.

But here I run into one of the distinctive differences between Space Syntax and my own phenomenological approach: do we experience the whole (whether building, city, region, neighbourhood)? Space Syntax seems to say yes, the whole is implicit in the particular, although the whole is made up of all possible ‘points of view’. I am hesitant to agree and I find the senses to be useful critical tools in describing my hesitation.

Sensory experience, in the broadest sense, is a made up of various sensory registers (associated with the different senses). These registers have particular distance decay rates. A sound decays by 3 dB when the distance from the sound is doubled. Smells have different decay rates, which are shorter. Sight covers the furtherest distance and is the central analytical approach in Space Syntax. The decay rate influences the total area perceived and even when all the sensory registers are combined there is a limited range. Now, the limited range is further constrained by conscious awareness. As people move through space, much of what is interpreted by the sensory systems is interpreted unconsciously, often spoken of as ‘experience’. This is not to say that it does not form knowledge, but that it forms a tacit knowledge of urban environments. In particular space-time settings, different sensory registers come into play. In way finding, sight and hearing take precedence, while in food shopping, smell and touch take on greater roles. In this sense, the ‘experience’ of space-time dictates the sensory registers in which we consciously pay attention to. This attention is often fleeting, but it does indicate the way in which human perception of ‘space-time’ as a thing is mediated by the senses. We make sense of the worlds we experience through our senses.

This guiding principle is part of the Space Syntax approach and I assume many in that community would not disagree with it. However, as a historian, as opposed to designer, architect or urban planner, I deal not with future potential, but with analysing the past. This has implications for the source materials at my disposal, as well as for the interpretive questions I bring to those sources. In many ways, this makes me less concerned with the ‘intelligibility’ of a city (a key term in Space Syntax) and more interested in response inhabitants had to the experience of ‘intelligibility’. Take hearing as an example: we will instinctively turn in the direction a sound is perceived to come from, most often based on where we expect the sound to be produced, not where the sound actually comes from. The instinct is not wrong, but built through the experience of urban space, particular objects and habitus (to use Bourdieu’s term). Getting the spatial location right is not as interesting as exploring why I looked where I did. The same goes for the ancient city. I am more interested in the way Roman authors describe places, whether intelligible or not, through their senses, as a way to understand the space of the city. This allows me to push the literary sources further and ask how that experience creates an uneven urbanism, an urbanism of certain space-times and not others, or of certain streets (or buildings, neighbourhoods, on and on…) and not others. ‘Intelligibility’ becomes a comparative tool to understand the descriptive experience, or the fashioning of the historical space-time.

Alan Penn ended with some points on architecture as a discipline and the theoretical/methodological focus, which Space Syntax brings. In particular, two points stood out, namely buildings, or cities, are non-discursive objects and configurations are relational. I make similar points through my own work and both points appear in this post. For me, these points are implicit in a sensory approach to urbanism, or architecture. Movements, sights, sounds, smells and any other sensory stimuli are the product of space-time and social activity. In this way, the senses are the non-discursive interpreters of the built environment, as well as being indicators of the relational character of urban configurations. The senses draw out these points, requiring us to think about the implications for the ancient world.

Reflections on Sensory Theory, Methodology and Experience: Contemporary and Classical Perspectives, Part 3: Sensory Experience

‘Among the Roman’s, 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 a social framework; in other words, private and public were not yet separated, and public did not yet have the unpleasant, almost ridiculous, character it has assumed in our society… [The Baths of Diocletian in Rome], 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… Even today, the buildings themselves appear to be characterised by a degree of luxury next to which our own cultural institutions and stadiums appear to descend from barbarians and puritans, more ascetic than they are subpar.’ –H. Lefebvre, Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, 136-137 (emphasis mine).

Sensory experience was the last theme of the conference Sensory Theory, Methodology and Experience. In the last two posts, I took up the themes of theory and methodology, which overlapped in several key ways. However, sensory experience moves the discussion outside of approaches to material and physical sources and into the realm of the sources themselves. In the previous posts, I argued for the senses as critical tools in theorising space and society. Methodologically, the senses are reflexive, requiring inventories that shift due to space and time. The senses also serve as thick descriptors of the reflexive nature of space and society. Sensory experience entails the combination of space, time and reflexivity. In a way, sensory experience is the result of a sensory theory and methodology of the body in space. To that end, let’s see where the theory and methodology of the previous posts have to lead us in terms of sensory experience.

Sensory Experience

I began, once again, with a quote from Lefebvre. In Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, Lefebvre draws on the Roman baths as some of the ‘most original architectural creations’ of a space of enjoyment (137). As discussed in the first post, Lefebvre has a broad definition of architecture that includes the physical building as well as the feelings, desires, pleasures that it entails and the space it produces. In the context of Lefebvre’s exploration of enjoyment, the Roman baths do not have enjoyment as their goal; rather the baths allow it, prepare for it and lead it (Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, 151). We can easily substitute experience for enjoyment. Sensory experience is not the goal, but rather a product of the space.

The body takes the central position in this respect and Lefebvre sees this placement as requiring a new paradigm (Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, 150). 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’ (Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, 149). The invocation of rhythmanalysis draws the senses and time into this pedagogy of the body, the rhythmanalist ‘thinks with his [sic] body’ (Rhythmanalysis, 21). This further elaborates the nature of Lefebvre’s tripartite division of space between the conceived and the lived. The conceived is the body, or space, of scientific knowledge of anatomy, or of physiology, which is focused on the subject, while the lived body, or space, is one of imaginary appropriation and makes symbolic use of the body’s objects (H. Lefebvre, The Production of Space, 39-40). 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 (Rhythmanalysis, 21, 27, 33). The senses bring with them a multiplicity of meanings (sens), which can mean ‘sense’ or ‘meanings’ (Rhythmanalysis, 32; cf. translation by Kofman and Lebas, Writings on Cities). But this is exactly the point. There are a multiplicity of senses and meanings, which the body constantly negotiates, interprets and reflects upon. Sensory experience is the multiplicity.

This sensory experience also entails a multiplicity of times. Lefebvre draws a distinction between linear and cyclical time, however temporalities extend beyond this simple division (Rhythmanalysis, 30). Doreen Massey argues for the reintegration of space and time within a conceptualisation of space-time, that is seeing the spatial form of social relations constituted in time, as well (Space, Place and Gender). Massey draws on contemporary physics to conceptualise space-time as n-dimensional (see her quotes in the previous post). By this way of thinking, social relations who constitute space are dynamic and simultaneously coexistent in time (D. Massey, Space, Place and Gender, 265). Time, like space, has a perceived, conceived and lived element (to use Lefebvre’s division). This is a useful way of drawing together the elements of space-time, the body and the senses into the concept of experience. The body interprets the multiplicity of sens, both meanings and senses, which constitute space-time, as sensory experiences.

To return to the Roman baths, the site is one of multiple temporalities. Daily routines of bathing were based on different times of attendance. Changes to temperature in the bathing rooms further differentiated the temporality of the space. Choice was another factor, especially choice as to which bath one attended. Other temporalities are evident, such as construction and maintenance in the inscriptions. Naming of baths connected the location with a family, person and time. Fires, extensions or contractions of the space also mark temporalities. Yet all these times, overlap with the space of the baths. The mediation of the temporality and spatiality of the bath was the sensory experience of the bath. Bathers moved through the different rooms from cold to warm, as well as from areas of activity to more passive areas. Movement serves as the basis of interpretation of the space-time of the baths. Informed by the senses, the body moved through space-time in both the present, as well as being drawn into the historical pasts and other time through interaction with inscriptions, statues, mosaics and other pieces of art. As Lefebvre notes, there was a social framework that Romans experienced, which gives clues to the way society worked (Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, 136). The sensory experience is implicated in the production of history through its mediation of space-time (D. Massey, Space, Place and Gender, 254). Here we come back to Lefebvre’s point, by way of Nietzsche and Marx, that the senses are the theoretical tools by which we produce and interpret space-time. This history of sensory experience is the history of space-time, a history of movements.

Reflections on Sensory Theory, Methodologies and Experience: Contemporary and Classical Perspectives, Part 2: Sensory Methodologies

‘What I propose to understand by ‘architecture’ is the production of space at a specific level, ranging from furniture to gardens and parks and extending even to landscapes… This sense of the term corresponds to the way it has been used since the beginning of the twentieth century, which is to say since architects began to design furniture to express their views and present their projects on what is commonly called ‘the environment’ – although I shall be carefully avoiding this expression because it has no precise meaning and has been corrupted by abuse.’ –H. Lefebvre, Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, 3.

 The second theme of Sensory Theory, Methodology and Experience was methodology. In many ways, the overlap between theory and methodology was constantly negotiated by presenters and respondents, which lead to fruitful points of contact and divergences. In particular, much of the discussion centred on the concept of ‘atmospheres’, drawing on the works of Tonino Griffero, Peter Zumthor and others. While I found the discussion helpful, it, at times, lacked a spatial grounding. No surprise, I was drawn to Soja, Lefebvre and Massey and I want to explore the way atmosphere might lead to methodologies which bring together senses, space and time.

Sensory Methodology

There is no singular sensory methodology, a point brought out in the range of speakers and respondents at the conference. Robin Skeates presented on fieldwork and archaeological practices from a sensory perspective, highlighting three key elements of reflexivity, inventory and thick description (Sensory Archaeology). While particular to archaeology, these three elements are useful in critically engaging with the methodologies discussed, especially the concept of atmospheres. I open this post with another quote from Lefebvre, as I find his expanded definition of architecture to be similar to atmosphere, but the crucial dimension of space is shot through Lefebvre’s redefinition. Martin Walton’s presentation (The Silent Transformations of Rosemary Lee’s Meltdown with a response by Helen Slaney) brought the challenge of the senses and space to the forefront in discussion of Rosemary Lee’s Meltdown, a choreographed performance by Dance Umbrella in London’s Brunswick Square (2011). Stillness and silence opened up affective space in urban space. As discussed in the previous post, the senses served as interpreters of the change in atmosphere of the space. The separation of ‘space’ and ‘atmosphere’ highlights the distinction implicit in the discussion, namely that the two elements were distinct. The discussion was reminiscent of Soja’s description of secondspace (Lefebvre’s conceived space), a space of imagination, reflexive thought or symbolic representation (overview in Postmetropolis, 10-12). The space was altered through the affect of the performance, or the atmosphere changed the quality of the space in the act of performance.

I like the emphasis on agency; the act of performance does something to space (as I am also keen to keep the ‘something’ ambiguous). Here reflexivity takes on importance. Atmosphere is a reflexive term, building on the social action of participants. I want to extend the reflexivity to the space of action, as well. I should note that many of the presenters and respondents would agree with this and I do not wish to imply that they were opposed to object or architectural agency. This is also at the base of Lefebvre’s theory of the production of space. Starting from the body, Lefebvre notes that there is a possibility of multiple codes and encodings (citing the visual, or the sensory, or the communication in space), without privileging any one, since there is no encoded architectural or spatial effect (Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, 151). The reflexivity of architecture coincides with the reflexivity of the senses (Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, 41). As a methodological pointer, the body as interpreter of space uses the senses to interpret atmosphere. In my own work, I stress the role of architecture, in Lefebvre’s broad definition, in social construction, while the senses are interpretive tools, which are used to analyse the process of social construction.

The reflexivity of senses, spaces and social constructions was further brought to the forefront in Matthew Nicholls’ response to Ben Jacks, who first raised atmosphere as a theoretical concept. Nicholls focused his response on his own digital reconstructions of Rome, which lack the social reflexivity implicit in atmosphere. The visual dependence of 3D reconstruction has yet to move beyond the display of already known facts of space (usually in Soja’s firstspace sense). In this way, atmosphere is completely missing from the reconstruction and spatiality is no better than a hyped-up 2D plan. This tension was brought up by Jacks in response, noting the unease he has with VR, AR and other reconstructions. My own unease comes from the reduction of lived space to what Lefebvre calls a ‘lunar landscape’ where space has lost the ability to attract and tempt the user with objects, people, encounters, or enticements and adventures, namely space without atmosphere (H. Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, 603). Or as Massey comments,

‘A first requirement of developing an alternative view of space is that we should try to get away from a notion of society as a kind of 3-D (and indeed usually 2-D) slice which moves through time… Instead of linear process counterposed to flat surface (which anyway reduces space from three to two dimensions), it is necessary to insist on the irrefutable four-dimensionality (indeed n-dimensionality) of things. Space is not static, nor time spaceless.’ –D. Massey, Space, Place and Gender, 264.

My own discussion of reconstruction in terms of sound requires not simply a model but the archaeological detail of the site, space or building. Materials, dimensions and construction methods, as well as decoration are all necessary in order to place sound with in the model. The same should be done for the producer, which is also a function of time, of the sound to even closely approximate the soundscape. In this way, my own method entails a fair degree of inventory, as well as reflexivity in the inventory itself. However, to only include inventory (categorisations, lists, etc) or reflexivity limits the possibilities of the methodology.

I am somewhat less inclined to thick descriptions, although I do see the use and value in Skeates’ own work (see his An Archaeology of the Senses: Prehistoric Malta). My emphasis on space and spatiality however, indicates a different form of thick description. The importance of the interaction between senses, space and society coincides with the importance of mediation. As Lefebvre states,

‘[t]here is no sensation without mediation or activity, and, therefore, no sensation as such, no sensation without appreciation with its implicit judgement. Pure sensation has never existed. Immediacy is found within the bounds of the sensory, within the indiscernible ambiguity of the sensory and the sensual. It is also found beyond it, in the unity of the sensual and the sensory of a space.’ –H. Lefebvre, Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, 115.

A sensory methodology, like a sensory theory, needs to grapple with the way sensory modalities mediate space and time. Space and time are at the centre of experience, which I will deal with in the following post. However, the bringing together of the senses and society in space has methodological implications for understanding senses. In particular, it is the ‘mixity’, as Doreen Massey puts it, of space, where a multiplicity of histories are brought together in specific places, that produce tacit knowledge gained through the senses (D. Massey ‘Cities in the World’, in City Worlds). In this way, the multiplicity of histories can be told as thick descriptions of space.

In a way, the senses serve as thick descriptors of space. Spatial work and architecture, in a limited sense of buildings, are mediators between the sensory and metaphysical perception and conception of objects, but fail to mediate between the sensory and the active perception of space (H. Lefebvre, Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, 95). Taken as thick descriptors, the senses serve to construct specific places and times, that is atmospheres. Lefebvre makes reference to this possibility in a footnote, noting that noise, as the residue of sound, can be taken as means of constructing ‘contexts for a life to be created (‘moments’)’ (H. Lefebvre, Metaphilosophy, 303 n.7). Writing thick descriptions of the senses are therefore one methodological approach, which can serve to encapsulate the complexity of senses and society for any given period.

In the next post, I turn to the theme of experience, which draws together much of the discussion from the last two posts. The role of sensory experience in theorising and formulating methodologies is central and needs further nuance than often given. The movement here from theory to method will continue to experience. In particular I have mentioned the centrality of time, the senses grounded in space-time and can serve, again, as a useful tools in understanding the experience.

Reflections on Sensory Theory, Methodology and Experience: Contemporary and Classical Perspectives, Part 1: Sensory Theory

‘The truth of space thus leads back (and is reinforced by) a powerful Nietzschean sentiment: ‘But may the will to truth mean this to you: that everything will be transformed into the humanly-conceivable, the humanly-evident, the humanly-palpable! You should follow your 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.’ –H. Lefebvre, The Production of Space, 399-400 (emphasis mine).

I spent the end of last week, Friday and Saturday, at a conference titled Sensory Theory, Methodology and Experience in Canterbury hosted by my own department, Classical and Archaeological Studies. The two days were full of great discussion and presentations on sensory studies from a variety of disciplines, although anthropology was notably missing. However, I walked away with several questions about the role of three themes in the title: theory, method and experience. I found myself frustrated and enlightened by the way these themes were brought together or played off one another. Here, I want to take of each in critical conversation with my own approach (I was not a presenter or respondent) to the senses. I have broken-up each theme into an individual post due to constraints of space and time. This first post will be more theoretically driven, than other posts on the blog, which deal with physics and acoustics in practice, however the conference was primarily focused on cross-disciplinary discussion and therefore much of the conversation was theoretically informed (those that know me, know that I am very at home having theoretical and theory driven conversations). I will tackle methodology and experience in the next couple of posts, although all three play off each other continually. With that, let’s jump right in!

Sensory Theory

I started with Lefebvre’s comment on Nietzsche and Marx because, for me, it offers a key clarification of sensory studies, namely do we study the ‘senses’ as objects (‘things’ in the world, categorising the smells, tastes, touches of a particular time or place) or do we use the senses as theoreticians to understand a social or cultural group? For Lefebvre, it is the latter. The senses offer tools for analysing the way space is perceived, conceived and lived (to use Lefebvre’s tripartite division). Monica Deegan, the first presenter (Researching Time, Senses and the Urban, co-presented with Astrid Swenson), brought this point to the forefront, commenting that the city, or urban, was first and foremost experienced through our bodies. The role of the body would return again and again in the discussion, but what struck me was the immediate recognition that senses overlapped, while at the same time combined to interpret the urban (or any other form of landscape). That is to say, our bodies and sensory modalities make the world cohesive, although not always in a linguistical manner. Our senses, then, are the tools used in the social production of space (to use Lefebvre’s terms again). Here, we come to one of my own interests that were only briefly touched on. If the senses are the tools for interpretation, then the senses can be theoreticians in their own right, as Marx indicated.

This requires us to set aside the categorisation of senses into lexical groupings and instead use sense perception as a theoretical approach to the ancient world (or any time period). For me, this is where the acoustic measurements are useful as spatial abstractions, which can be related to bodies in space. A particular space can be measured to indicate the way the room effects sound. This measurement will give us a numerical indication that avoids resorting to linguistical categories (like loud, quite, soft, etc.). But even more important the measurement is a direct measurement of sound produced in that space. The direct correspondence allows for the limitation of possibilities. Certain sounds will cause fundamental problems for the use of the space. These limitations will also apply to the social use of the space, as well as its sensory experience. In a way, this brings us back to the lexical categorisation, although we have to pass through the body and its sensory experience. Again, Lefebvre was already aware of this feedback loop created by space and the senses:

‘Something is adjusted to each body, precisely to the extent required. Space speaks and does what it says. Is it the human being present in such a place who receives a message from that space appropriate to its meaning – contemplation? On the contrary, wouldn’t it be space that receives the perpetually confused message of the human being in search of life and truth, and that reflects back upon him, or restores it clarified and intensified?’ –H. Lefebvre, Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, 11 (emphasis mine).

 Lefebvre’s question is apt, is it space than sends a message or human beings that send messages into space? In a typical Lefebvrean manner, he says both. It is the social activity, in this case contemplation, that creates an effect, which is reflected back by the space in which contemplation takes place. Place, in this sense, becomes a space and social actions in space. But it also is the sensory perception of space, social action and time. Yi-Fu Tuan, who was referenced in Deegan’s presentation, provides a helpful reminder of the experiential aspect of place (I know I said I would deal with experience in the last post). For Tuan, ‘space’ and ‘place’ are differentiated by experience (Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience). Drawing on a conversation between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg on visiting Kronborg Castle in Denmark, in which Bohr relates the difference in feeling the castle assumes when thought of as the place where Hamlet lived, Tuan sets out to understand the aura of ‘place’ described by Bohr (Space and Place, 4). Here, again, sensory modalities are social and cultural constructs, which produce non-communicative experiences, experiences that are indescribable. In this case, sensory studies offers a way into these experiences, a way led by sensory theories (not theories about the senses, but the senses as theoreticians).

Tuan makes a distinction that connects with the Roman world, as well as being part of the discussion following the final presentation at the conference (Louise Richardson on Distinguishing Senses: Naturalism and Non-Naturalism with a response from Clare Batty and Kelli Rudolph). Space is known through movement, while place is pause (Space and Place, 6, 12, 179-83). Several presentations touched on aspects of movement, anywhere from walking to theatrical performances, to traffic and cart movements, not to mention combinations of these, such as the York Corpus Christi plays that were moving shows performed in the 14th century (Annette Kern-Stälher, Engaging the Historical Archive of Sensation). However, in the final presentation, which followed the discussion of the York plays, a presentation of non-Naturalist categorisation of senses was given (analytical philosophical approach). Richardson commented that a non-traditional categorisation of the senses, Piers Plowman’s in this instance, could be possible, but that it was unclear why ‘walking’ could be a sense. The categorisation depends on a specific definition of ‘sense’, but that was the problem. Definitions are part of the social, cultural and experiential construction of a given group. That is to say, sensory perception will be different for different social/cultural times, as well as spaces (the second being more important for me, at times). Space, as Lefebvre’s approach encapsulated in the quote above, is theorised through the senses. Abstracting the senses from space, to analytically categorise them, reduces the categorisation to box ticking (if, then statements, listing propositions, etc.). Those who know my own interests will not be surprised to hear I disagree with this line of enquiry. Senses, as spatially and socially formed, cannot be reduced to words and texts, which often fails to adequately describe sensory experience (a point made by several other participants). In this case, movement is a mode of interpretation of the environment. This is a point made by de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life:

‘[Ordinary practitioners of the city] walk—an elementary form of this experience of the city; they are walkers, Wandersmänner, whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban ‘text’ they write without being able to read it.’ -M. de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 93.

 I do not like to see movements as ‘texts’ for the exact point that de Certeau makes in the second half of the quote, that is movements cannot be read. However, it does open up the possibility to see movement as an interpretative process of spatial negotiation. In the same way the senses interpret space and time so, movement do the same.

In my own work, the idea of movement as an interpretive tool comes to the forefront when looking at the language of noise in Latin. The most common term for loud noise (strepitus) was associated with busy activity and confused movements, while silence (silentium) had the connotation of stillness and lack of movement (Veitch, Acoustics of Roman Ostia, 44). The close connection between sound and movement further emphasises the potential for the senses as theoreticians. The social construction of mobility in the Roman world produced particular movements (see J. Urry, Mobilities and R. Laurence, ‘Towards a History of Mobility in Ancient Rome’, in The Moving City). These movements were structured in the same way as sounds. The physical spaces structured movement and acoustics. In this way, by placing the physics of sound within the human body, a theory of auditory movement could be applied to the ancient world. My own PhD was the basis for my developing auditory theory, but the other senses could be offer different perspectives on the social construction of the ancient world.

In the next two posts, I will reflect on the topics of methodology and experience. In particular, I reflect on the discussion of Peter Zumthor’s concept of ‘atmospheres’ and my own desire to see architectural environments (the subtitle to Zumthor’s book) as part of Soja’s Thirdspace and Lefebvre’s expanded definition of architecture in Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment. In the last post, sensory experience is taken-up and I reflect on my own unease with the term (an unease not helped by Lefebvre).


Presentation: Sound, Space and Soceity: Urban Acoustics After Pompeii

I will be presenting a paper at the European Association for Urban History, Reinterpreting Cities, 13th International Conference on Urban Hisotry at the end of the month and as I was asked to upload a summary of my paper on the EAUH site, I have also posted it below. I have been busy finishing my PhD, which is now a full draft being edited for submission. In many ways, this presentation is a summary of some of the conclusions, although being a 20 min pres it does not cover everything. Anyways, here is the summary and key points I’ll be talking around Thursday morning, 25 August, in Helsinki:

[Opening Quotes] The production of space, according to Lefebvre, is just as much about the physical buildings and imaginary worlds as it is about the sensory activities and bodily functions.[1] For Lefebvre, the senses, especially sound, offer a theoretical tool by which to analyse the daily rhythms of the city.[2] While the production of space has come to the forefront of Roman urban studies, especially in Pompeian studies, the role of sensory activities remains minimally explored.[3] In this paper, the perception of sound serves to elucidate the urban space of Ostia Antica. Drawing on the theoretical work of urban geography, introduced by Pompeian scholars, this paper will argue that production of space in Roman cities was fostered by the acoustic inclinations of Romans. In this way, the paper takes ‘after Pompeii’ in two simultaneous directions. On the one hand, it seeks to build on the approaches tested in Pompeii; on the other hand, it applies a case study from a city that displays the architectural developments that immediately preceded Pompeii, namely the second century CE. Sound provides a critical tool to analyse the experience and interaction within urban space, as well as being an object of study within literary sources on Roman urbanism. The result is a better understanding of the changing perceptions and conceptions of urban space, beyond simply reconfigured urban space, either through construction or deconstruction.

[Sound & sources graph] The literary sources display a particular anxiety towards noise, especially the sounds of movement or the movement of sound. It is worth defining sound and noise, as these terms reflect a perceptual difference that is socially and culturally specific. Sound is any auditory stimulus that is interpreted by the human auditory system (ears, body, brain, etc.), while noise is unwanted sound, being an auditory judgement. In short, one person’s sound is another’s noise. The distinction is therefore a judgement, drawing on status, gender, age distinctions in relation to things experienced outside the perceiver.

[Juv. Quote] The social anxiety towards noise is manifest in two forms. First, noise complaints about the sounds of the city, in this case Rome specifically. Juvenal offers a pertinent example in Satire 3, were Umbricius complains that the sick die from lack of sleep due to the noise. The caput mundi, Rome, is filled with noise, making it the caput morbi, ‘head of the disease’.[4] For Juvenal, as well as Martial and Seneca, satire served as a social critique of the architectural changes to the experience of streets following the fire in Rome of 64 CE. [Street terms & sound refs] This is an important point in terms of ‘after Pompeii’. The building regulations (street widening, porticos and height restrictions) are evident throughout Ostia, but only minimally present in Pompeii.[5] The brief period between the destruction of Pompeii and the rebuilding and extension of Ostia was a period of intense construction, which also changed the perception of the urban space.

Noise complaints are connected to certain spaces, as well as certain times. The forum, via and vicus are most referenced pubic space in terms of sound, with semita and clivus all being over 10%. Most sound roots are connected with movement, which is the base of auditory anxieties. For example, strepitus carries the connotation of busy or stressful activity, while fremitus has connotations of animals buzzing or humming, such as bees.[6] In contrast, silence, sileo, is connected with non-movement, or stillness, which emphasises the combination of sound and movement. Through both etymology and associations, sound roots are connected with movement; to move is to make sound. The fluidity of spatial practices underlines the role of sound in defining space.

[Rumour terms] Sound anxiety also appear as anxiety over the movement of sound, in this case rumours, gossip and the like. Fama, either rumour or fame, is constantly on the move, restless and unstable.[7] The spatial boundaries of fama, therefore, constantly shift, or more precisely never stop long enough to be spatially fixed.[8] Speed is part of the moral topography of movement, as O’Sullivan has shown.[9] Running is characteristic of slaves and effeminate action, an association also connected to movement of fama.[10] In this case, rumours are the target of social control due to association with non-elite forms of urbanism, specifically neighbourhood groups, vici, and small gatherings in the forum, circuli.[11] [Augustus] These informal groupings were the sites of popular resistance in the late Republic, which were later incorporated into the imperial state; through the reorganisation of the vici and the control of movement in the Forum Romanum both in the Augustan period.[12]

[1] H. Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, Verso, 2014, p. 484.

[2] H. Lefebvre, The Production of Space, Balckwell, 1991, p. 405; cf. Lefebvre, Rythmanalysis: Space, Society and the Everyday, Bloomsburry, 2013.

[3] E. Betts, ‘Towards a Multisensory Experience of Movement in the City of Rome’, in Laurence and Newsome (eds.), Rome, Ostia, Pompeii: Movement and Society, OUP, 2011, pp. 118-32; A. Haug and P. Kruez (eds.), Stadterfahrung als Sinneserfahrung in der römischen Kaiserzeit, Brepolis, 2016.

[4] Juv. Sat. 3.234-6; J. Hartnett, ‘Sound as a Roman Urban Social Phenomenon’, in Haug and Kruez, n. 3, p. 166.

[5] See S. Ellis, ‘Pes Dexter: Superstition and the State in the Shaping of Shopfronts and Street Activity in the Roman World’, in Laurence and Newsome (eds.), n. 3, p. 173.

[6] Strepitus, Hor. Carm. 3.29.12; Epist. 2.2.79-80; fremitus, Sen. Ep. 94.72; Vir. Geo. 4.216.

[7] P. Hardie, Rumour and Renown: Representations of fama in western literature, CUP, 2012, pp. 3-11; 248.

[8] R. Laurence, ‘Towards a History of Mobility in Ancient Rome (300 BCE to 100 CE)’, in I. Östenberg, S. Malmberg, J. Bjørnebye (eds.), The Moving City: Processions, passages and promenades in ancient Rome, Bloomsbury, 2015, p. 181.

[9] T. O’Sullivan, Walking in Roman Culture, OUP, 2011.

[10] Corbel 2004, pp. 107-139; O’Sullivan, n. 8, pp. 11-33; Hardie, n. 6, pp. 357-360; 387-391.

[11] Vici, R. Laurence, ‘Rumour and Communication in Roman Politics’, Greece and Rome 41 (1994), pp. 62-74; circuli, P. O’Neill, ‘Going Round in Circles: Popular Speech in Ancient Rome’, Classical Antiquity 22 (2003), pp. 135-76.

[12] Reorganisation of vici, A. Wallace-Hadrill, Rome’s Cultural Revolution, CUP, pp. 276-90; Forum Romanum, D. Newsome, ‘Movement and For a in Rome (the late Republic to first century CE)’, in Laurence and Newsome (eds.), n. 3, pp. 304-5.

Back to Ostia… and Rome!

I fly out today for two weeks in Rome. I will be doing some field work for the first half and then presenting at the Roman Archaeology Conference in Rome the second week.

Recently, I have been working on the acoustics of street spaces. I have concentrated on the north cardo maximus, which is a single large scale development of the area north of the forum. The street is lined with porticos on each side and is uniform in its construction. The cardo maximus is the second widest street in Ostia, only the decumanus is wider. In many ways, the cardo maximus is the main street one would enter coming from the Tiber (unlike today, where we enter from land). In contrast, I have been analysing a side street, which was not uniformily constructed and lacks porticos or other monumental features. The Via degli Augustale is the opposite to the north cardo maximus. My field work will focus on the development of the street and the way individual owners shaped the streetscape.

In terms of acoustics, as well as sounds, the complex construction, reconstruction, and continuous work along the Via degli Augustale all shaped the way the streets sound field. A temple along the decumanus was dedicated in the 190s CE, which reduced an open street area along the street. The noise of the temple (sacrifices, processions, etc.) would now dominate the north end of the street, while at the south end was one of the largest fulleries. It is the interactions between these various activities in the street space that produces a different experience, than that of the cardo maximus.

Some of this work will, hopefully, make it into my presentation at RAC. I am in a session discussing sensory approaches to movement in the Roman period. Much of the presentation will be an introduction to my basic approach, but I will use my north cardo work as a case study. If things go as planned, I should be able to share a bit about the comparison with other streets, like the Via degli Augustale. Fingers crossed.

Finally, an update on the blog: I have started to pull together some resources on acoustics, under the ‘Acoustic Resources’ tab at the top. I have linked to Electric Archaeology’s github on sonification, which involves turning a data set into a song. It’s a great way to present data in a different format, requiring people to engage with data through listening. I also posted some work that I will be presenting in April. There are a couple of network graphs of sound roots, street terms and Latin authors I created pulling references from the Packard Humanities Institute database. They show the terms prefered by authors, as well as the connections between places (street terms) and sounds (Latin root words for sounds/noise). The graphs are interactive so, you can scroll over a term/author/word and it will highlight the network associated with the selection.



Postgraduate Workshop: Roman Space and Urbanism, 11 Nov. 2015

I will be presenting on my current chapter this Wednesday, 11 Nov. 2015, at a Postgraduate Workshop at University of Kent. The workshop highlights some of the current work on Roman space and urbanism in the Classical and Archaeological Studies department by PhD students. The workshop is a part of a visit by Kent Institute of Advance Studies in Humanities Visiting Fellow Eric Poehler (UMass), who will give a keynote lecture. Details can be found here.

My presentation will introduce my approach to acoustics from archaeological remains/materials and its implications for understanding noises through Lefebvre’s ‘rhythmanalysis’. I use Lefebvre’s rhytmanalysis to bring together the multiplicity of sources for sounds and noises to think about everyday rhythms and life in Ostia.

I focus on the space of streets, although I draw examples from the Baths of Neptune and Portico di Pio IX at Ostia. The title, Inde caput morbi, is taken from Juvenal’s Satire 3, which I use to bounce some of the physics of sound findings off Roman writings on streets. It should be a fun afternoon and I’m excited to hear some of my fellow Kent PhDs presenting their work.

Sounds (or Noise) in Streets

In a previous post I discussed the influence of shop doors on the acoustics of the space. The basis analysis and methodology will be published in a forthcoming edited volume (hopefully in June). Recently, I have been exploring the acoustics beyond the facade or shop front and looking at street noise. Much of the methodological approach remains the same; dimensions and construction material form the baseline of the acoustic analysis. However, certain elements are missing in street canyons that mean sounds react in different ways to the space.

First, the lack of covered or enclosed space means that large areas will not reflect sounds. It is a basic feature of streets that they are open to the sky and rarely covered. In acoustic terms, this means that much of the sound will dissipate over distance, as opposed to being absorbed by the physical walls or ceilings, as happens in enclosed rooms.

Despite the lack of covering, the pavement and building facades will reflect and absorb the sounds and noises of the street. In contemporary acoustic design, traffic noise is the primary nuisance, which acoustic designers and architects try to limit. It was, in fact, the high levels of traffic noise that began the search for standard acoustic measures. Emily Thompson has a fantastic book, *The Soundscape of Modernity*, that charts the history acoustics as a field in the start of the modern period.

In terms of ancient streets, in a similar manner to enclosed spaces the types of materials can be assessed for their absorption coefficient, a standard measure of a materials ability to absorb sound. These basic elements can again be plugged into a predicative equation to measure the absorption.

The second deficulty with streets is the complexity of the arrangements. Even building facades present a complex sound field with various surfaces, materials and architectural features. In Ostia, several buildings have monumental entrances with pillars, columns, or pedestals and some times all three. These features will change the way the sound reflects off the surface. Even more problematice, although I do really like the challenge, is the widespread use of colonnades or porticos. The space of the portico is, again, partially covered and partially open. This means that sounds from the street can fill the portico, as well as sounds within the portico only being heard in close proximity to the space. The nature of porticos present their own acoustic character, quite unlike other street spaces.

It has been fun to explore the ways these acoustic features of streets, and porticos, can help us to better understand the street as a social space. I have just begun to map the effects of conversation noise in certain streets in Ostia and I will post an update as I write more about the street space. I will be presenting some of these findings this weekend in Umea, Sweden.