Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Destruction of Space

This is the first of the excerpts from my forthcoming book Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction  that I'll be posting on the blog. This is the theoretical intermezzo that opens up Part II of the book (Lost Cities). In the previous chapter, I examined how state violence defeated the indigenous insurgencies that had for centuries kept the state at bay from the Gran Chaco, and had created an anti-state spatial void in the heart of South America. After briefly making reference to the aftermath of that historically-specific destruction by state power, this section explores the concept of "the destruction of space." 

Abstraction’s modus operandis is devastation, destruction (even if such destruction heralds creation).
Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space

          The violent destruction of the void of the Gran Chaco by the state marked the disruption not only of particular forms of sociality free from state control but also of a terrain defined by physical striations that had slowed down state mobility for centuries. Military conquest, therefore, was followed by the smoothing out of forests and swamps, carried out over several decades in order to build roads, railroads, telegraph lines, bridges, towns, airfields, ports, agricultural fields and cattle ranches. The clearest sign that military victory had been complete was that the labor of defeated multitudes armed with shovels, axes, pickaxes and machetes was used to destroy older striations, change the form of the terrain, and produce a territory under state control.
The destruction of space inaugurated in the Gran Chaco in the late nineteenth century has continued unabated. The technologies of destruction have nonetheless changed. At the turn of the twenty-first century, waves of bulldozers are smoothing out the striations of the last areas of thick forests and destroying the homes of whoever happened to live there to make abstract space for agribusiness and capital-intensive cattle ranching. The western edge of the Gran Chaco is going through one of the highest deforestation rates in the world. In the borderlands of Paraguay and Bolivia in the northern Chaco, a handful of highly mobile Ayoreo people still committed to avoiding living under state power are the very last remnants of the multitudes that once formed the war machine of the Chaco. They are no more than two dozen men and women and are permanently on the move, evading the myriad actors and the bulldozers that are rapidly obliterating the once thick forests of the northern Chaco. Far from being un-contacted, these people are fleeing. As Lucas Bessire has analyzed in gripping ethnographic detail, Ayoreo people who left the bush only a few years ago told him they thought those bulldozers regularly haunting them were monsters of steel. These people know what the bulldozers are: machines of spatial destruction. Bulldozers are the main machines for the destruction of space that capitalist globalization relies on. The Ayoreo people aptly call them, “the attackers of the world” (Bessire 2011).
Hundreds of kilometers to the south on the western edge of the Chaco in Argentina,  bulldozers are also on the move to create soybean fields to satisfy the booming global demand for soy; and these machines are destroying places inhabited not by nomadic Indians but by the criollo people who had taken their place in the name of civilization. It was the ordinary people I met in my fieldwork who first prompted me to think about the destruction of space. A ese lugar lo han destruido, “They have destroyed that place,” was a common phrase I heard throughout the region in reference to places disrupted both recently or in a distant past by powerful people alien to the region.
“The destruction of space” may sound like a counter-intuitive concept. The idea that space can be “destroyed” challenges the common sense, first articulated by Newton, that space is the absolute extension upon which objects are located as points in a measurable matrix (see Casey 2007). This is, in fact, the same common sense disturbed by the notion of “the production of space,” which as Lefebvre noted, is often imagined as a timeless substratum that “cannot be produced.” But the production of space is always predicated on spatial destruction, and this intermezzo explores this intersection.
In The Production of Space, Lefebvre revolutionized critical theory by emphasizing that space should be examined through the lens of production. He forced us to think about space as the materially created conditions of all forms of sociality, oppression, struggle, and emancipation. And he demonstrated that production is not restricted to the making of objects but that it is a force that generates space. Yet space, Lefebvre emphasized, is a product unlike any other; it is the very condition for sociality: a product that pervades society in its entirety. It is through space and its production that the contradictions, tensions, and struggles that shape any social formation become tangible. This is why Lefebvre viewed the production of space as a profoundly disruptive and tension-ridden process. Space, he wrote, is ruptured and unstable, “devastated and devastating” as well as “utterly dislocated” (1991:97). This spatial destructiveness is apparent under capitalism and its tendency to generalize abstract space. Lefebvre emphasized that abstract space is inherently violent and destructive, a “lethal” space that “destroys the historical conditions that gave rise to it.” “The negativity that Hegelianism attributed to historical temporality alone is in fact characteristic of abstract space” (1991:370).
 The destructive nature of capitalism lies upon its universalizing abstractions, the product of a state of generalized commodification that reduces sensuous bodies and spaces to available and quantifiable slots: things to be bought and sold and turned into a source of profit. There is a violence intrinsic to abstraction, and to abstraction’s practical (social) use,” Lefebvre insisted. This abstraction, he noted, passes for “an absence” as if capitalist quantifying abstractions were separate from “concrete” objects. “Nothing could be more false. For abstraction’s modus operandi is devastation, destruction (even if that destruction may sometimes herald creation)” (Lefebvre 1991: 289, emphasis in original).
Lefebvre, in other words, was well aware that the production of space is profoundly violent and destructive; but he stopped short of examining the destruction of space as a concept in its own terms. In this intermezzo, I examine the destruction of space by drawing on Lefebvre and also by spatializing Marx’s emphasis that production is inseparable from destruction. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels famously wrote that capitalism’s fabulous productivity is founded upon equally fabulous levels of destruction. Under bourgeois society, they wrote, “all old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed.” Further, what capitalism produces is regularly obliterated in crises of over-production, which lead to the “enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces.” And whereas previous systems were based on the conservation of their modes of production, they argued that capitalism is founded on a constant revolutionizing of production. And this dynamism has a dissolving force, through which “all fixed, fast-frozen relations” are “swept away” and “all that is solid melts into air” (Marx and Engels 1992 [1848]:4-9). In Grundrisse, Marx (1993 [1858]) elaborated on the theoretical foundations of this principle by arguing that production requires the destruction of raw materials. In this cycle, consumption and production are different moments of the same process that begins anew with production.
The production of space under capitalism creates vast levels of spatial destruction. Production and destruction work in tandem permanently giving new forms to the terrain, revealing the terrain's material plasticity, changing its layout in this or another way, redefining the political regimes under which these disruptions are organized and contested. These negative and positive moments in the transformation of the form of the terrain are inseparable but not identical. The same way that the production of space is not the same as the production of ordinary commodities, the destruction of space is not simply the physical obliteration of objects and spatial forms; it is, primarily, the shattering of the conditions of sociality that define a particular constellations of human and living nodes in the terrain. And the main measure of spatial destruction is its impact on human bodies as well as all forms of life. When Lefebvre wrote that space is devastated and devastating he was pointing to its effects on human bodies, not on “space” in the abstract. In Appalachia and the Andes, mining corporations are destroying spaces not only because they are obliterating rock formations but also because they saturate local places and streams with rubble and poison that negatively affect people and all living forms. A political understanding of the destruction of space cannot but be founded on an affective view of space.
The rise of capitalism represented in this regard not only a new mode of production of space —of an abstract space at the service of commoditization and state power but also a whole new mode of spatial destruction. The capitalist destruction of space shatters or disrupts all obstacles to its striving for profit maximization. The traces of this destruction are constitutive of all existing terrains, and are more than apparent in the massive environmental devastation unleashed all over the planet in the past century.
David Harvey is one of the leading authors who has highlighted the spatially destructive nature of capitalist production, through his emphasis on the impact of speed on distance (the famous, if misleading, “annihilation of space by time”) and the disruption of spatial forms created by “uneven geographic development.” And he rightly identifies an important tension between stasis and motion in these disruptions, for while capital strives for mobility “capital invested in the land cannot be moved without being destroyed” (Harvey 2010:190). Yet Harvey has consistently examined this process with a concept with peculiarly bourgeois baggage: “creative destruction.”
Coined and popularized by Joseph Schumpeter (1950) during the New Deal, the idea of capitalism's "creative destruction" appropriates the negativity of Marx’s view of capitalist destruction yet rephrases it as creative, thereby depoliticizing it. Through a subtle yet decisive ideological sleight of hand, destruction is redefined as innovative, positive, desirable: the unavoidable side-effect of the thriving dynamism of capitalism. It is therefore not surprising that neoliberal economists and apologists of corporate power are particularly fond of praising capitalism’s “creative destruction,” for in this usage the positive element, creation, subsumes and neutralizes its destructiveness.
The concept of the destruction of space follows a different path, which acknowledges the affirmative outcomes of destruction but does not subsume this negativity to a creative affirmation. I prefer to conceptualize this process as destructive production, for what defines production in its capitalist-imperial form is what Ann Stoler (2008) calls the ruination of spaces, bodies, and social relations and the creation of social suffering. This destruction is, indeed, as David Harvey and Neil Smith emphasize, spatially uneven. And this spatial destruction creates what Chris Hedges and others aptly call sacrifice zones: "areas destroyed for quarterly profit." “We’re talking about environmentally destroyed, communities destroyed, human beings destroyed, families destroyed.”
Capitalist destruction can only come across as “creative,” in other words, among those who (like Schumpeter) are secluded from the debris it generates, and are keen to erase it. “The truth of the matter,” Marshall Berman (1982:99-100) points out, “is that everything that bourgeois society builds is built to be torn down” and that the bourgeoisie “would tear down the world if it paid.” And he added, “Their secret a secret that they have managed to keep even from themselves— is that, behind their facades, they are the most violently destructive ruling class in history.” By the same token, the destruction of space under capitalism is the most devastating ever created, as the rapidly shifting patterns of climate and extreme weather we are currently witnessing make it clear.

The destruction of space involves very different levels of physical disruption, intensity, violence, and different forms of temporality and speed. The most dramatic and abrupt forms are certainly those produced by warfare, which can obliterate whole cities or regions amid devastating violence and loss of life in a matter of days or weeks. This is destruction as sheer negativity, in which the obliteration of a particular space is usually not geared (in the short-term) toward the production of a new place but is an end in itself as part of a military engagement. Eyal Weizman’s gripping analysis of the Israeli 2009 invasion of Gaza is the best account I know of this type of spatial destruction. In Gaza, the destruction of space by the Israeli military operated through unrelenting firepower and physical force that created vast fields of ruins and 1,400 corpses, most of them of unarmed civilians. Weizman highlights a notable fact: most people died crushed by the ruins of the buildings that fell upon them, which means that the built environment “was turned into the very things that killed” (2012:100). This case shows that the terrain is inseparable from the bodies that live in it and that the destruction of space, therefore, often also destroys human bodies.
Yet in being also the negative moment of the capitalist production of space, the destruction of space operates today at an everyday, unrelenting pace whose temporality and intensity are dictated by the shifting pulsations of capitalist productivity. Unlike situations of warfare, this is the spatial destruction whose negativity is geared toward the production of commodities and places. Countless nodes in the global terrain are obliterated on a daily basis either to obtain raw materials (mountain tops blown away to extract minerals) or to create places where more commodities can be produced (forests bulldozed to create soybean fields). This means that spatial destruction increases amid waves of economic acceleration and operates ideologically through the expansive logic of abstract space: that is, the idea that the whole planet is a blank surface to be exploited for profit regardless of whoever lives there and of the qualitative nature of those places. The destruction of space represented on the movie Avatar, with the obliteration of Pandora's huge forests by an imperial mining operation aptly represents what is the situation today all over planet Earth, and not simply in the Global South. The movie also makes it clear that the capitalist destruction of space “in times of peace” is also an eminently violent affair that demands the forced removal of the bodies living there and opposing this destruction.
Yet another crucial dimension of spatial destruction in the capitalist-imperial present is that destruction is not simply a side effect of capitalist dynamism: “collateral damage” created on the sidelines. Destruction itself is a massive source of profits: the explicit purpose of crucial sectors of the global machine. Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine (2007) shows with clarity that we live in an era of disaster capitalism in which corporations are attracted to recently-destroyed places like a magnet, for they see in the affective shock and social upheaval created by destruction a “business opportunity.” It happened in Iraq amid the rubble created by the 2003 invasion and it happened in Haiti amid the rubble created by the 2010 earthquake: corporations moving in on fields of ruins to profit from them as part of imperial looting operations that are not simply part of the primitive accumulation Marx analyzed in Capital but are constitutive of the capitalist global order.
But the destruction of space is not simply the outcome of capitalist growth; it also accelerates, acquiring a different dynamic, when capitalist production goes through its cyclical periods of crisis. This is spatial destruction created by factories shutting down, jobs disappearing, and people either moving away or living a more degraded existence. This destruction may be gradual and leave behind ghost towns whose physical infrastructure may be initially intact but that reveal over time a place that has been socially devastated. These places are destroyed not because they are physically shattered but because the relations of sociality that gave them life have dissolved. In the huge urban slums where a quarter of humanity lives, the erosion of space adopts a different pace, closer to spatial degradation than destruction: what Stoler (2008) calls the ruination that makes millions of people live in derelict, polluted, debilitating spaces.
What all these different processes of spatial destruction share is the unraveling or erosion of social-spatial configurations and the emergence of new spatial forms punctuated by unwanted material surplus. And this surplus of debris is more often than not superimposed upon older waves of disruption. Lefebvre reflected briefly on these palimpsests of ruins when he wrote that ancient ruins such as Troy or Leptis Magna “enshrine the superimposed spaces of the succession of cities that have occupied them.” He added that “each new addition inherits and reorganizes what has gone before; each period or stratum carries its own preconditions beyond their limits” (1991 [1974]:164). The presence of ruins in the terrain, in other words, affects and conditions the spaces that come next, which in turn reorganize the pre-existing debris that surrounds them.
The constituent force of ruins also means that the point in analyzing the destruction of space is not simply to outline the salience of devastation in the making of terrain, but also to explore the positive spatial and affective reconfigurations that follow, as well as the afterlife of the debris thus created. First, people affected by spatial destruction usually begin to rebuild and to try to remake their lives immediately thereafter. Rebecca Solnit (2009) has examined how places that are devastated often generate remarkable forms of solidarity and creativity among survivors . Not for nothing, as I analyze at the end of the book, ruins can become, as Mark Healey (2011:6) has argued, “an invitation to transformation”: the possibility of building something better.

Yet in the chapters that follow I examine a different afterlife of ruins: their capacity to affect the living spaces and social configurations that surround them because of their ongoing presence and form as ruins. The transformation of the Chaco into a space under state sovereignty took place in a terrain that was already strewn with debris from previous waves of spatial destruction. And the largest and more noticeable were the ruins of Spanish cities destroyed by the war machine. The destruction of space, in this regard, is certainly not restricted to state-capitalist formations; it also defines the negativity of anti-imperial insurgencies aimed at destroying the spaces under the control of the state. At the foot of the Andes, the ruins created by the war machine continue haunting the living, the state, and the Catholic Church centuries after their destruction.


Berman, Marshall
            1982. All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. New York: Penguin.
Bessire, Lucas
            2011. Apocalipctic Futures: The Violent Transformation of Moral Human Life among the Ayoreo-Sppeaking People of the Paraguayan Gran Chaco. American Ethnologist. 38(4): 743-757.
Casey, Edward
            1997. The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Harvey, David
            2010. The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Healey, Mark
            2011. The Ruins of the New Argentina: Peronism and the Remaking of San Juan After the 1944 Earthquake Durham: Duke University Press.
Klein, Naomi
            2007. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Knoff.
Lefebvre, Henri
            1991 [1974]. The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell.
Marx, Karl
         1977 [1867]. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy Vol. I. New York: Vintage.
     1993 [1858]. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. New York:Penguin.
Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels
            1992 [1848]. The Communist Manifesto. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smith, Neil
            1984. Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell.
Schumpeter, Joseph Alois
         1950. Capitalism, socialism, and democracy. New York,: Harper.
Solnit, Rebecca
           2009. A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. New York: Penguin.
Stoler, Ann
         2008."Imperial Debris: Reflections on Ruins and Ruination."Cultural Anthropology. 23:191- 219.
Weizman, Eyal
2012. The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza.London: Verso.