Friday, September 19, 2014

Lefebvre's Beach

This review essay of Henri Lefebvre's Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment was originally published at Society and Space. Special thanks to Lukasz Stanek (who edited the book and wrote its wonderful introduction) for his feedback and for providing me with the photo of Lefebvre and his family at the beach reproduced at the end of this post. 
                Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991) was one of the most incisive, original, and prolific philosophers of the twentieth century, and his wide-ranging books profoundly redefined our understanding of space as something material, produced, embodied, and disrupted by conflict and violence. Yet it is only in 2014 that we finally have access to his masterful Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, his most forceful meditation on the spatial utopia he aspired to. Written in 1973 and subsequently forgotten for four decades, the book is an extraordinary exploration of the affective dimensions of space, a topic that was uncharted territory in the 1970s. Lefebvre tackled it with the creative heterodoxy that always characterized him, blending his acute spatial gaze, the critical spirit of Marxist theory, phenomenology’s bodily sensibility, and a Dionysian, Nietzschean thrust. Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, in particular, testifies to the impact that Nietzsche had on Lefebvre’s views of space, focused here on the most vital disposition that defines human affects: enjoyment. This is not the commodified, shallow, individualized enjoyment cultivated by corporatized spaces of leisure. The enjoyment celebrated by Lefebvre is part of collective and insurgent forces that disrupt spaces of domination and suffering, for (in his words) “only the humiliated, the oppressed, the exploited … retain a vital, explosive energy, the energy of enjoyment expended in festivals and revolutions” (70).
             It has become a cliché to say that some thinkers are so ahead of their times that they are misunderstood by their contemporaries, but if this idea has any purchase it’s certainly with Lefebvre. His groundbreaking The Urban Revolution (1970), for instance, was met with hostility by Marxist authors because he proposed to rethink urban spatiality as a material form that involves circulation, centralities, and flows and is irreducible to capitalist industrialization. The book was only published in English thirty-three years after the French original, and twelve years after Lefebvre’s death. Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment adds another milestone to this dissonance and deferral in the reception of his ideas, for the book only saw the light of day in any language forty-one years after Lefebvre wrote it and thirty-three years after his death. Ironically, what is striking about the book is how fresh, youthful, and timely it often feels; as if it were a manifesto written for us in the future, sent to help us reimagine the spatial politics of emancipation in the twenty-first century.
            We owe the rescue and publication of this notable book to the perseverance and talent of Lukasz Stanek, the Manchester-based Polish architect who wrote the volume’s excellent and comprehensive introduction, and who is also the author of Henri Lefebvre on Space (2011, also published by Minnesota). In the introduction, Stanek tells us the fascinating story of how on a 2008 trip to Spain he discovered that the manuscript had sat for decades in the private library of Mario Gaviria, a renowned Spanish sociologist and urban planner who was a close friend and collaborator of Lefebvre. Gaviria and Lefebvre had spent years analyzing the transformation of the beaches of the Mediterranean into commodified spaces for the consumption of the northern European middle-classes. This became an important theme in Lefebvre’s The Production of Space, which was published in 1974 and became his most famous masterpiece (the book was published in English in 1991, months before his death). In the 1960s and early 1970s, Gaviria and Lefebvre interpreted the transformation of the Mediterranean into a tourist destination as a neo-colonial subordination of southern Europe to the better-off parts of the continent. Gaviria asked Lefebvre to write a manuscript on “the architecture of pleasure” associated with this spatial transformation, to be submitted to the foundation that financed the research. In 1973, Lefebvre wrote the book with the revised title “Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment.” Making explicit his debt to his friend, he dedicated the book to Gaviria.
Gaviria, however, was expecting something else. Stanek does not go into details, but says that Gaviria found the manuscript “too abstract” and did not enclose it in his report. The sole existing copy of the manuscript ended up in Gaviria’s personal library in the basement of an old house from the 1600s. When in 2008 Stanek told Gaviria that he would love to see it, they both went to the old library. It took Gaviria “several hours” to find the manuscript, which indicates that its presence had been largely forgotten amid piles of other objects. In an illuminating interview with Stuart Elden at Society and Space, Stanek mentioned that a flooding in the basement had destroyed many of the library’s books and documents. Lefebvre’s manuscript survived, but barely; it was sitting just above the water level. Had more water flooded the basement, that bundle of aging pages, and the ideas written on them, would have dissolved into nothingness.
The story of the trajectory and eventual public appearance of the manuscript is as remarkable as its content. Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment is, indeed, a complex, “abstract” philosophical book. The style of the narrative is vintage Lefebvre: some sections include meandering thoughts that seem to drift, but that gradually build momentum as they weave different topics in tangential yet ultimately illuminating ways. What Gaviria perhaps found too abstract is that Lefebvre’s examples barely hint at Mediterranean Europe. Gaviria seems to have wanted a more concrete reflection on the architecture created at Spanish beaches, and Lefebvre gave him a philosophical treatise on enjoyment and space. The book is a sweeping review of how philosophy, history, anthropology, economics, psychology, psychoanalysis, semiotics, semantics, and architecture tackled the problem of enjoyment in relation to space. The scope is as epic and erudite as it is, at points, uneven. The chapters I found most compelling are those on philosophy (chapter 5) and psychology and psychoanalysis (chapter 8). Lefebvre’s critique of the ways in which European intellectual traditions confronted the problem of enjoyment from ancient Greece to the twentieth century is not free from an Orientalist common sense that occasionally romanticizes a sensuous “East” in contrast to an austere and moralist “West,” the only moments when the narrative feels dated. And his engagement with Spinoza’s philosophy of affects, an obviously relevant interlocutor given Spinoza’s celebration of joy, is disappointingly brief and superficial, even if Lefebvre is right in noting that Spinoza overlooked the problem of space (60). Yet despite its shortfalls, the book is consistently thought-provoking and reveals how myriad authors addressed or overlooked the affective and the sensory in the making of space.
This engagement with multiple disciplines is Lefebvre’s own effort to answer the book’s foundational questions: What, exactly, is enjoyment? Which are the joys that are genuinely liberating? The book’s brilliant translator, Robert Bononno (who also translated Lefebvre’s The Urban Revolution), warns us in the opening pages about the well-known nuances of the word jouissance (“enjoyment”) in French, including its libidinal connotations that make it resonate with “pleasure.” But perhaps in critical dialogue with Gaviria’s perception that the text was too abstract, Bonono rightly points out that Lefebvre writes about jouissance in the most bodily and concrete sense of the term, and with the aim of criticizing the alienating power of spatial abstractions under capitalism. The abstractions that define capitalist, commodified space are a major theme in Lefebvre’s The Production of Space. The fact that the two books were written almost simultaneously often makes Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment read like the former book’s “lost,” most assertive chapter: the moment when, after examining how space is historically produced and turned into something alienating, Lefebvre pauses to reflect on his disruptive spatial utopia of collective joys.
For Lefebvre, enjoyment is crucial for a political understanding of spaces of freedom because its raw, sensuous materiality is inseparable from the social conditions that define space. Yet he also shows how elusive, multifaceted, and fleeting this physicality is. He insists that enjoyment is momentary, slippery, appearing only to disappear again. Joy, he writes, is like a “surplus” that only emerges from “use” and “efforts” (62, 75). In one of the most Nietzschean yet also most dialectical lines in the book, Lefebvre writes that enjoyment “is merely a flash, a form of energy that is expended, wasted, destroying itself in the process” (115). This is why for him the idea of “architectures of enjoyment” is primarily a problem, a question for which he does not have a neat answer, and for which no clear answer, in fact, will ever exist. Lefebvre gestures at a generative void: a horizon of spatialized enjoyments that may be momentary and not fully apprehensible but that are important to appreciate the liberating but also oppressive ways in which affects contribute to producing space.
A central theme in the book is that these flashes of joyful surplus can easily become deceiving traps that create spaces of domination. The state always strives to domesticate popular joys and turn them into mere “satisfaction,” which under capitalism becomes the fetishized “illusion” of private enjoyment (5, 70). This is the “caricature of enjoyment” through which spaces of leisure are subsumed “to the demands of profit” (101). The ruling classes, in turn, cultivate their own perverse enjoyments, which thrive on the suffering of others. “The powerful take pleasure in crushing the weak and defeating an adversary whose power is equal to or greater than their own” (16). This is why the elites have for millennia built massive, “tragic” monuments: the “architecture of death” of the Taj Mahal in India or the pyramids in Egypt (6). This monumentalized architecture is the best example of the “absolute space” he would write about in The Production of Space: the places saturated with religious meaning and claims to transcendence that dominated medieval Europe, and which were to be eroded by the rise of capitalist spatial abstractions and their commodified functionality. 
           “The site of enjoyment, if it exists,” in contrast, “perpetuates what hostile space can kill, erode, exterminate” (113). This generativity of an enjoyment that arises against “hostile space” is a positive appropriation of space: the production of a collective space where use-value, life, and the body predominate. Architecture, in this regard, is for Lefebvre not just a discipline; it is the very practice of producing space (3, 152) and has potentially insurgent elements in the creation of spaces of joy that  rebel against the abstracting, alienating commoditization of space. 
There is an important caveat, however. Architecture will never magically generate enjoyment in and of itself. Lefebvre is hostile to this spatial fetishism, for enjoyment can emerge from anywhere because of its elusive, bodily, fleeting nature (an abandoned warehouse, he says, can be quickly turned into a place of celebration). Further, if the goal of creating “a space of enjoyment” becomes too explicit and spatially fixed, genuine enjoyment is destroyed. In a particularly important section, Lefebvre writes that “the places of enjoyment” should not have pleasure or sensuality “as their function.” “Discotheques and bordellos” are for him far from being places of enjoyment; they are defined by “the death of pleasure,” because “the tireless pursuit of dead pleasure is hell.” “The place of sensuality,” he adds, “need not be sensual.” This is why an architecture of enjoyment should draw from the only possible source of pleasure: the body in its non-commodified immediacy in relation to space. “Places have no way of giving beings what can only come from themselves, the vitality known as desire” (112).
For Lefebvre, therefore, only collective gestures and actions can create spaces of enjoyment, primarily through an “economy of joy” where use-value and egalitarian appropriations prevail over commoditization and class domination. This is an enjoyment with anti-capitalist dimensions, created by an economy that does not have enjoyment as its goal, but “allow it” and “lead to it” (151). This is why Lefebvre argues that “spaces of enjoyment cannot consist of a building, an assembly of rooms, places determined by their functions.” Rather, they emerge through bodies expending their vital energies in “moments, encounters, friendships, festivals, rest, quiet, joy, exaltation, sensuality, as well as understanding, enigma, the unknown, and the known, struggle, play” (152). Lefebvre knows very well that this is a utopian project, to be created collectively by a revolution that has yet to take place. Yet he also warns the skeptic reader that this is a concrete utopia whose affective and spatial materiality already exists among us, for “every time you find a place genuinely pleasing and enchanting… you enter this utopia.” And he provocatively asks us, his readers: Would you be able to survive “if you cannot refresh yourself in a short bath of enjoyment from time to time?” (132).
             During his stay in Spain while writing the book, Lefebvre took time to enjoy the beaches of the Mediterranean in Catalonia that him and Gaviria had examined as alienating places of leisure. A photo taken by Gaviria and reproduced in Stanek’s introduction shows Lefebvre enjoying the waves of the sea with his young daughter Armelle and his then partner Nicole Beaurain —who typed Lefebvre’s hand-written version of the book. In Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, Lefebvre refers to the beach only briefly, but notes that whereas beaches used to be feared places associated with “fishermen, peasants, and pillagers of shipwrecks,” in “the modern era” they have been discovered “as a space of enjoyment that could be used by everyone, all class distinctions being dissolved in a strip of land near the sea” (49). In The Production of Space, Lefebvre would argue that seemingly democratic places of leisure like the beach are “an extension of dominated space,” for “leisure is as alienated as it is alienating.” Yet he added that the beach is also a contradictory place with disruptive edges, because the body enjoying it “takes its revenge—or at least calls for revenge.” This is a body that “seeks to make itself known—to gain recognition—as generative.” When the beach is enjoyed through the senses, Lefebvre added, the body tends to behave “as a total body, breaking out of the temporal and spatial shell” of alienated labor, thereby hinting at potential breaking-points in an everyday life devoid of joys (The Production of Space, 383-85, italics in original).
In retrospect, Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment helps us better understand these lines and in general Lefebvre’s political philosophy of space. The idea that a body enjoying the beach generates a surplus of vital energy irreducible to that place’s commoditization is probably inseparable from Lefebvre’s experience at those beaches that inspired him to write about the spatiality of enjoyment. In a section that sums up the book’s nuanced argument, Lefebvre wrote that enjoyment requires “bodily immediacy,” and that it is space that provides this immediacy “between enjoyment and pleasure” (116). It is, therefore, “space,” he wrote, “that maintains this connection between pleasure and enjoyment: by preparing pleasure, by calibrating it, by enabling it to surround enjoyment, even if enjoyment, in the narrow and absolute sense, has no space.”

Saturday, September 6, 2014

La horda aniquilable

Este texto es la traducción de The Killable Horde, publicada el 4 de septiembre en este blog (traducción del inglés de Antonio Doval Borthagaray)

La película Guerra Mundial Z incluye varias escenas en las que soldados matan a enormes cantidades de zombies; no es casual que la película termine con una imagen que simboliza la victoria de las fuerzas mundiales de seguridad sobre la epidemia planetaria zombie: enormes pilas de cadáveres, tan grandes que forman empinadas colinas. Estos cadáveres de zombies epitomizan la idea de la horda aniquilable, compuesta de cuerpos que son tan peligrosos, incontrolables y desprovistos de humanidad que deben ser asesinados “en defensa propia.” La idea de llamar a esta violencia “un crimen” es impensable. Este es el momento en que las ideas de Agamben sobre “el estado de excepción” se vuelven palpablemente reales: cuando gente que se autodefine como civilizada condena el asesinato excepto cuando involucra una horda deshumanizada y percibida como aterrorizante.
Los zombies que la industria del cine presenta como aniquilables son la manifestación ficcionalizada de las multitudes humanas que son consideradas asesinables en todo el mundo, desde Gaza a Ferguson, Missouri. Los poderosos siempre han marcado a las poblaciones oprimidas como salvajes, atemorizantes y aniquilables sin culpa. La reciente popularidad de discursos sobre derechos humanos y humanitarianismo no parecen haber socavado el poder de esta disposición visceral hacia la vida y la muerte. El comentarista conservador Ben Stein, por ejemplo, justificó el asesinato de Michael Brown por la policía en Ferguson con el fundamento de que, en sus palabras, “él no estaba desarmado,” porque “él estaba armado con su increíblemente fuerte y atemorizante ser” (his incredibly strong, scary seflf) y que el policía, entonces, estaba justificado de sentirse amenazado y de dispararle seis tiros. Los defensores de la masacre indiscriminada de civiles por la violencia israelí en Gaza expresan argumentos igualmente desconcertantes que reproducen la imagen de que los palestinos, por definición, dan miedo. Mencionar la palabra “Hamas” parece suficiente para justificar que se haga cualquier cosa contra la gente que vive en el ghetto de Gaza, a pesar de la abrumadora evidencia de que la mayoría de las víctimas (como Michael Brown en Ferguson) estaban desarmadas. Pero la evidencia material y los argumentos racionales nunca son suficientes para persuadir a aquellos que sienten el miedo en sus entrañas. Lo que es aterrador sobre los palestinos, como Ben Stein dijo en el caso de Missouri, es su misma existencia, “su ser atemorizante,” que los “arma” con un “increíble” poder: el poder de inculcar miedo en los poderosos. Igual que los zombies; o los “indios.”

Hace décadas, Gilles Deleuze y Elías Sanbar usaron la acertada frase “Los indios dePalestina” para nombrar a la situación colonial impuesta por el estado de Israel sobre el pueblo nativo de Palestina. Pero los palestinos se volvieron los “indios” de Israel no simplemente porque fueron desposeídos por colonos sino también porque, como parte de este proceso (como con los “indios” de las Américas), se volvieron los perfectos salvajes asesinables. A los ojos de la mayoría de la opinión pública en Israel, “los árabes” (el término con el que los palestinos son reificados y exotizados) han sido posicionados como indios irracionales que amenazan un reluciente puesto de avanzada de la civilización. Ellos son por ende matables con impunidad y sin culpa. Como si fuesen zombies. Después de todo, como argumenté en una entrada previa (World Revolution Z), la horda zombie que en Guerra Mundial Z carga contra el Muro Israelí de Separación (y que las tropas israelitas tratan sin éxito de masacrar) es una horda zombie palestina que viene de los territorios ocupados. Los hombres afro-americanos en los Estados Unidos también son tratados como si fuesen zombies (o indios salvajes). Cuando gente blanca de Ferguson organizó una manifestación de apoyo al policía que ejecutó a Michael Brown, se organizó una contra-protesta de gente mayoritariamente afro-americana que empezó a cantar “manos arriba, ¡no disparen!” El grupo de manifestantes a favor de la policía, que minutos antes había estruendosamente negado ser racistas, respondió con un desconcertantemente transparente “¡disparen! ¡disparen! “¡disparen! ¡disparen!” David Gershon escribió (acá) sobre este incidente: “A veces hay momentos que son tan crudos que tienen el poder de encapsular una verdad desagradable (an ugly truth) en un solo instante. Este es uno de esos momentos.” La verdad desagradable revelada por esos llamados entusiastas a aniquilar a gente desarmada es también evidenciada por quienes se muestran indiferentes ante el asesinato de cientos de niños en Gaza por parte del estado de Israel. A pesar de las obvias diferencias entre ambos casos, estos eventos de violencia sacan a la luz algo sobre lo que vale la pena reflexionar sobre los campos de fuerza afectivos que definen al orden mundial: que gente normalmente respetuosa de las leyes puede condenar con indignación el asesinato de seres humanos, excepto cuando involucra cuerpos rebeldes y aterradores que merecen ser aniquilados ‒como esos zombies masacrados en Guerra Mundial Z.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Killable Horde

The film World War Z includes several scenes in which soldiers kill large numbers of zombies; not surprisingly, the movie comes to an end with a graphic image that symbolizes the victory of the global security forces over the planetary zombie epidemic: massive piles of corpses, so large that they form steep hills. This detritus of zombie corpses epitomizes the trope of the killable horde, made up of bodies that are so dangerous, uncontrollable, and devoid of humanity that they have to be murdered “in self-defense.” The idea of calling this violence “a crime” is unthinkable. This is the one moment when Agamben’s ideas about “the state of exception” become tangibly real: when self-proclaimed civilized people condemn murder except when it involves a scary, dehumanized, hostile horde.
The zombies that the film industry presents as killable are the fictionalized embodiment of the actual human multitudes that are deemed killable all over the world, from Gaza to Ferguson, Missouri. The powerful have long marked oppressed populations as savage, frightening, and killable without guilt. The recent popularity of tropes about human rights does not seem to have undermined the power of this visceral disposition toward life and death. Conservative pundit Ben Stein, for instance, justified the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson on the grounds that, in his words, “he wasn’t unarmed,” because “he was armed with his incredibly strong, scary self” and the officer, therefore, was justified in feeling threatened and shooting six times. Defenders of the indiscriminate massacre of civilians by Israeli violence in Gaza made similarly perplexing arguments on the grounds that Palestinians are, by definition, scary. Mentioning the word “Hamas” seems for them enough to justify doing anything to those living in the Gaza ghetto, despite the overwhelming evidence that the vast majority of the victims were (like Michel Brown in Ferguson) unarmed. But material evidence and rational arguments are never enough to persuade those who feel fear in their guts. What is terrifying about Palestinians, as Ben Stein put it in the case of Missouri, is their mere existence, their “scary selves,” which “arms” them with an “incredible” power: the power to instill fear on the powerful. Just like zombies; or “Indians.”

Decades ago, Deleuze used the apt phrase “The Indians of Palestine” to name the colonial situation imposed by the Israeli state on the people native to Palestine. Yet Palestinians became the “Indians” of Israel not simply because they were dispossessed by settlers but also because, in the process (as with the “Indians” of the Americas), they became the ultimate killable savages. In the eyes of the majority of the Israeli public, “the Arabs” (as Palestinians are reified and exoticized) have been positioned as irrational Indians threatening a shinning outpost of civilization. They are therefore killable with impunity and without guilt. As if they were zombies. After all, as I argued in a previous post (World Revolution Z), the zombie horde that on World War Z charges against the Israeli Wall of Separation (and that Israeli troops unsuccessfully try to massacre) is a Palestinian zombie horde that comes from the occupied territories. African-American men in the United States, likewise, are increasingly treated as if the were zombies (or savage Indians). When white demonstrators in Ferguson rallied in defense of the police officer who executed Michael Brown, they were confronted by a counter demonstration that chanted “Hands up, don’t shoot!” The pro-police crowd, which minutes earlier had vociferously denied it was racist, responded with a disarmingly transparent “Shoot, shoot!” David Gershon wrote (here) about this incident: “Sometimes, there are moments so stark that they have the power to encapsulate an ugly truth in a single frame. This is one such moment.” The ugly truth encapsulated by that crowd is also made transparent by those who disregard or justify the murder of hundreds of children in Gaza. Despite their obvious differences, these events of violence teach us something worth reflecting on about the affective force-fields that define our capitalist and imperial present: that otherwise law-abiding people can readily and indignantly condemn murder, except when it involves those unruly, scary bodies that deserve to be killed —like those zombies shred to pieces in World War Z.