Thursday, May 31, 2012
Stuart Elden on space between Heidegger and Lefebvre.
Although in his early works Heidegger is more concerned with an analysis of time, he does occasionally make some penetrating remarks about understandings of space. In later works, beginning from around the mid-1930s, Heidegger starts to redress the balance and to treat questions of spatiality as equally important to those of temporality. The principal thrust of his argument is that space, like time, has been understood in a narrow, calculative, mathematical sense, which is divorced from our experience of space in our everyday dealings with the world. In the case of space, Descartes’ understanding of res extensa is the central ontological break. Descartes’ distinction between res cogitans and res extensa means that the fundamental ontological determination of substance, material being, is that it is extended in three dimensions. Descartes importantly suggests that all problems in geometry can be reduced to the line of some straight lines, to the values of the roots of the equations, thereby turning space into something that is quantitatively measurable, calculable, numerical. In a number of striking examples—walking into a lecture room, the uses of a kitchen table, a bridge over a river—Heidegger takes issue with such a reductive analysis. Instead, he suggests that we deal with the world as a matter of concern, acting with and reacting to objects within it in a lived, experiential way, instead of abstracting from them in a Cartesian grid of coordinates.

Heidegger’s later work introduces a term known as “poetic dwelling”, which derives from his lecture courses on Hölderlin in the 1930s and 1940s, and is fully elaborated in later essays. In a late poem, Hölderlin suggested that “poetically, man dwells on the earth”. For Heidegger, this notion of dwelling, wohnen, is precisely this way of inhabiting the world in a lived, experienced manner instead of one of calculative planning. Indeed, this notion of dwelling is the direct opposite of the understanding of technology that Heidegger thinks holds sway in the modern world. Technology, taking the world as a substance which can be ordered, planned, and worked upon—instead of worked with—is a direct consequence of Cartesian metaphysics, and is the condition of possibility for modern science, mechanised forms of agriculture, the holocaust, nuclear weapons and other modern forms of control. Heidegger’s critique of Nazism, such that it is, is principally grounded upon it being a continuation of, instead of a challenge to, this metaphysical understanding of the world.

It could be contended that there are two principal things missing from Heidegger’s work on space. Whilst he is exceptionally interesting in a historical reading of the philosophical tradition, he is less good on historical detail, with the illustrations often merely passing references. Equally, while he is penetrating in his analysis of the spatial aspects of the Greek polis, he often neglects the more explicitly political aspects of modern appropriations of space. As I have tried to show in Mapping the Present, Foucault is extremely important in taking Heideggerian ideas forward in an analysis of the relation between history and space. Here, I want to cover the other side of the matter. Lefebvre, building upon Heidegger’s philosophical critique, is exceptionally powerful in looking at the relation between politics and space, especially in relation to modern capitalism. He does this through an analysis of the production of space. The bringing in of a Marxist concept, with all the political issues that implies, is tremendously important in understanding Lefebvre’s distance from Heidegger, even as the emphasis on “space” is indebted to him. Lefebvre’s work The Production of Space should be read between Marx and Heidegger.

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