Thinking about space

Harvey, David. 2006. Spaces of Global Capitalism. London, New York: Verso.

2 lectures & an essay presented at Heidelberg in 2004.

“Neo-liberalism and the restoration of class power” is about how Reagan & Thatcher led the neo-con or neo-liberal counterrevolution, so that “Freedom” (as in “Operation Iraqi Freedom”) means freedom for the likes of Haliburton, Bechtel, BP et al. Not new information, but coherently assembled.

“Notes towards a theory of uneven geographical development” is just that, notes and rather rough ones, where he is exploring how “several overlapping ways of thinking about” uneven development (why some places are so much richer than others) can be harnessed to a common theory. He lists these more conventional approaches as
1) Historicist/diffusionist interpretations (the poorer places just haven’t caught up yet)
2) “Development of underdevelopment” (poverty and political weakness in poor areas are deliberately constructed by corporations & governments wanting to exploit their resources at the cheapest possible price)
3) Environmentalist explanations, such as Jared Diamond’s (some places were just luckier with their climates and other natural resources)
Harvey thinks all three approaches have merit, i.e., explain parts of the phenomena, and wants to integrate them into one theory. But, as he acknowledges, he still has work to do.

Most interesting (to me) was the essay he calls “Space as a key word,” as a proposed addition to Raymond Williams’ famous book.

Just what is “space”? It has to be something entirely different to a building contractor or to Stephen Hawking, and neither of them (usually) means the same thing as an artist or poet who talks about “conceptual space.” As a geographer, Harvey is professionally interested in space, and wants to consider all its types and how they impinge on one another. He is most impressed by (a) a three-fold typology he himself came up with in a book more than 30 years ago, & (b) Lefebvre’s 3-fold distinction (see below), which he combines in a three-by-three matrix (nine cells) which don’t prove anything, but do generate some interesting new possibilities for thinking about space.

Harvey’s 1973 classification was “absolute space” as “a ‘thing in itself’ with an existence independent of matter” ; “relative space” or how real, materially existing objects relate to one another; and finally “relational space… regarded in the manner of Leibniz, as being contained in objects in the sense that an object can be said to exist only insofar as it contains and represents within itself relationships to other objects.”

I think I get that last one, but that surely is not the clearest possible way to describe it (and I hope we don’t have to buy into Leibniz’s “monad” theory). In political thought, “the left” is such a relational space. It has no real, material existence, and has no meaning except in relation to the political “right.” The second one, relative space, is no problem either: we are talking about real things, like mountains of hard rock or the jumble of objects on my desk, where one thing may be on top of, or under, or behind, etc. some other thing (especially when I’m trying to find it). I’m having a little more trouble with “absolute space” but maybe he’s thinking of something like (as though there were anything like) the universe. Space as conceived by physicists, I suppose.

Harvey paraphrases Lefebvre’s categories as (1) the space of experience and of perception open to physical touch and sensation (what the building contractor or the guys in the storage depot mean by “space,” how many real physical things will fit and how); (2) the representation of space (e.g., paintings, photographs or diagrams, or the hand-signals you make when telling somebody how to get to the Angelika Movie Theater); and (3) spaces of representations, or “the lived space of sensations, the imagination, emotions, and meanings incorporated into how we live day by day.”
I’m not sure that Lefebvre’s categories are all that different from Harvey’s other set, especially Lefebvre’s “spaces of representations” and “meanings” vs. Harvey’s (or Leibniz’s) “relational space.” And if they are not very different, then setting them up as a three-by-three matrix is not likely to yield much new information. But it is a mind-stretching exercise that architects, who must deal with all 9 cells, probably use without thinking about it.

Harvey, David. 1973. Social Justice and the City. London: Edward Arnold.
Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The Production of Space. Translated by D. Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell.
Williams, Raymond. 1985. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

About David Harvey

Images: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz from Wikipedia; Solar Earths from the BBC.

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