Space: the primal frontier

The topic has been set on representation recently and I already once alluded to someone whose work I should comment on. That someone is Henri Lefebvre, whose understanding of space will be elaborated this time. In his ‘La production de l’espace’, he argues for understanding space as socially produced. Condensing the some 450 pages here would surely result in mere injustice to the work in question, so I’ll only to focus on his spatial triad. I will be making references to the English translation: ‘The Production of Space’.

As I already pointed out and as one might grasp from the title, Lefebvre argues in favor of understanding space as social and produced. It is perhaps best to elaborate his views in his own words (73):

(Social) space is not a thing among other things, nor a product among other products: rather, it subsumes things produced, and encompasses their interrelationships in their coexistence and simultaneity – their (relative) order and/or (relative) disorder. It is the outcome of a sequence and set of operations, and thus cannot be reduced to the rank of a simple object. At the same time there is nothing imagined, unreal, or ‘ideal’ about it as compared, for example, with science, representations, ideas or dreams. Itself the outcome of past actions, social space is what permits fresh actions to occur, while suggesting others and prohibiting yet others.”

So, simply put, it’s not a mere passive thing, it’s how the world goes around, the result of production and the precondition of production, like a structured structuring structure, if you will, if you wish to consider that in Bourdieusard terms.

For him (1-2, 73) space is not a priori, created by a divine power or simply tied to being. He (3-6) is particularly opposed to speaking of space without explaining what is meant by it, simply taken for granted, as if it is just there and everything is automatically connected to it. Essentially everyone from Noam Chomsky and Claude Lévi-Strauss to Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida are targeted here for folding space, namely social and physical space (or just real space), in to a ‘mental space’ and/or assuming a bridge between these spaces. Jacques Lacan gets his share later on (35-36). I’m not exactly sure whether his arguments are accurate, or how accurate they are, having not familiarized myself with all of the people mentioned by him, but we should also take the date of publication, 1974, into consideration. For example, I’d argue Foucault was quite the luminary. He did actually shed light on how space, or rather visual understanding of it, alongside language led to certain discourses. I hope comment on that another time. That said, he did not really plunge into spatiality, despite the interest he expressed towards geography in an interview conducted by the editors of Hérodote for its first revue in 1976. That said, who knows what he would have ended up focusing on had he not died in 1984. Anyway, what I take from Lefebvre (7) is what Maurice Ronai (137) also noted in his first article on landscapes, treating space as a message to be read or a code to be decoded is problematic without acknowledging how it came into being. Lefebvre’s (3-4) ire over speaking of space, as well as of the related spatial terms like ‘sector’ and ‘sphere’ as the translator notes (8), axiomatically is also warranted and should be taken into consideration.

Skipping ahead, Lefebvre (33, 38-39) presents his conceptual triad. The first part is spatial practice, which deals with how space is (re)produced. It is marked by how space is used, i.e. perceived and practiced. It is closely linked to perceived space. The second part is representations of space, which involves conceptualized representations of space, for example artistic or scientific depictions of space. To provide some examples here, on the artistic side these include paintings and on the scientific side maps and plans, as we may gather from the previously elaborated articles by Ronai and Denis Cosgrove. Representations of space are closely linked to conceived space. Lefebvre (41) adds that they “are shot through with a knowledge (savoir) – i.e. a mixture of understanding (connaissance) and ideology – which is always relative and in the process of change.” More importantly and highly relevantly to landscapes, he (41) continues and wonders whether they are true or false: “what does it mean, for example, to ask whether perspective is true or false?” Surprise, surprise, the code that is linear perspective gets mentioned in reference to, as you might guess, Italian Renaissance (40-41). The good thing is, as he (41) notes, that they are subject to change due to eventual internal inconsistency, no matter how objective they appear. The third part (39), is representational spaces, the lived space that is passively experienced by its inhabitants, a symbolic or representational layer that overlays the physical space and its objects. Lefebvre (41) argues that unlike representations of space, they lack “rules of consistency or cohesiveness.” In more contemporary terms, representations of space and space of representation could be referred to as discourses on space and discourse of space, as stated by Rob Shields (161) in ‘Lefebvre, Love and Struggle’. Of course, judging by Lefebvre’s attitude towards language and discourse (think of, say Foucault, here), I image him objecting to those reformulations. Now, it should be emphasized that the three aspects are linked to one another, thus perpetually affecting one another, even if in varying degrees at different times. As he points out (41-42), his conceptual triad permits change, yet representation remains highly influential.

Lefebvre’s thought is surely more complex than what I am able to discern and disseminate here. I find his understanding of space and the conceptual triad very helpful in understanding how and why space matters. I find it particularly helpful in explaining the role of landscape to others. It offers something of an anchoring. People seem to grasp it better when I can point out that landscape as we know it can be understood as originating in certain practices that led to representations of space that in turn led to certain space of representation, which then seems have to ended up living a life of its own. That said, all this is indeed open to change, but at the same time highly resistant to it.


  • Bourdieu, P. ([1979] 1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (R. Nice, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Cosgrove, D. E. (1985). Prospect, Perspective and the Evolution of the Landscape Idea. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 10 (1), 45–62.
  • Foucault, M. (1976). Questions à Michel Foucault sur la géographie. Hérodote, 1, 71–85.
  • Lefebvre, H. (1974). La production de l’espace. Paris, France: Éditions Anthropos.
  • Lefebvre, H. ([1974/1984] 1991). The Production of Space (D. Nicholson-Smith, Trans.). Oxford, United Kingdom: Basil Blackwell.
  • Ronai, M. (1976). Paysages. Hérodote, 1, 125–159.
  • Ronai, M. (1977). Paysages. II. Hérodote, 7, 71–91.
  • Shields, R. (1999). Lefebvre, Love and Struggle: Spatial Dialectics. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.