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.”

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