The Production Of Space Understood Through Video Games

Henri Lefebvre’s 1974 book The Production of Space argues against the concept of empty or geometric space and in favor of social space.  He was a committed Marxist and his idea that space is never truly empty but always filled in or mediated is perhaps just a philosophical refinement of the argument against neutrality or objectivity.  Howard Zinn often commented that “one can never be neutral on a moving train” and by this he meant that he, as an historian, could never be objective but was always implicated in the struggle that is history.  Lefebvre went a step beyond this observation by suggesting that reality or space itself was bound up in the same historical struggle.  Lefebvre’s book argued against the objective world but did not posit a relative of subjective world in its place.  What Lefebvre was seeking was a way to conceive of space itself as Howard Zinn.

The back cover blurb for his book explains his project this way:

The production of space is a search for a reconciliation between mental space (the space of the philosophers) and real space (the physical and social spheres in which we all live).

To get a firm grip on what Lefebvre was attempting is to risk depoliticizing his work.  We have  to consider his work from within the realm metaphysics and to consider his argument within this realm risks reestablishing the dominance of the very “mental space” that Lefebvre is attempting to transcend.  Still, if we are to understand his ideas rather than hold to them in a vulgar act of politics then we must risk what might be considered a move toward idealism.

“Sometimes the simplest and most obvious distinctions give rise to the profoundest intellectual difficulties, and things most commonplace in our daily experience drive home to us the depths of our ignorance…And oddly, it seems that the simplest question one can ask about himself–the question namely, What am I? is the very hardest to answer, and nonetheless the most important.” -pg. 10, “Metaphysics,” Richard Taylor, 1963

In order to see how Lefebvre answers this question let’s presuppose the wrong answer.  Let’s assume that I am a computer program, an AI program maybe. Better yet, let’s assume that I am a character in a video game.  I am Pac Man, Mario, or that anonymous nobody who lends you his eyes in games like Minecraft or Punch-Out. Let’s pretend that I am a video game character but don’t yet know the truth. How would I come to self-knowledge?

According to Lefebvre I would be wise to skip any and all inner journeys to self- discovery that might be on offer.   If I’m a character in a video game I’ll need to look outside of myself in order to figure out who I am. Rather than asking “Who am I?” I should ask, “What kind of space am I in?”

Now, if I look around and notice that everything is made up of perfect cubes, if I find that water, dirt, air, stone, and even pigs always appeared as blocks, and if I find myself compelled to dig rectangular passages into the earth, then I might conclude that I am a character in Notch’s popular video game entitled Minecraft.

Or, if I discover that I’m stuck in a two-dimensional maze, if I find myself compelled to eat and eat, if I just have to run even though I have no legs at all, and if I am chased by ghosts, well, this indicates that I might be a Pac Man.

Having established who I am by taking a look around, there are still two Pitfalls to avoid.  There are two barrels rolling my way.  The first, according to Lefebvre, is the barrel labeled idealism.

Imagine that I am Pac Man and I see that there are ghosts chasing me, that there are pellets to eat, and that I am stuck in a maze.  How do I explain these facts to myself?  I might say, “All that there is in the world are these things that I see.  There are ghosts.  There are pellets.  Maybe there will be other things such as cherries or oranges, maybe there will be a jelly donut, but whatever is or will be, I can be certain that it will either appear or not.  The world is made up of sights and tastes.  Everything presents itself to me.  The world shows up either in my mind or on my tongue.  And there can be nothing that doesn’t appear to me as an object of my taste.”

Lefebvre calls this the illusion of transparency.  This is the idealist mistake.  Bishop George Berkeley made this mistake when he argued his immaterialist philosophy.  For Berkeley the word was immediately knowable as a set of appearances, or as a set of perceptions.  For him simply to look was to know the world as it was, but obviously if I am a Pac Men then I’m separate from the world as it really is.  I can’t access reality through my ravenous maw.  If I’m Pac Man then the maze, the ghosts, the whole field of my perception, it is all a sham.

The other mistake, according to Lefebvre, is the opposite approach.

Suppose that I find myself falling a tree with my bare hands.  Suppose that the tree doesn’t topple, but rather breaks apart into perfect cubes instead.  Imagine that I find myself surrounded by blocky pink pigs and rectangular creepers.  I find myself running from these cube creepers and I finally escape by digging into the side of a mountain, knocking dirt cubes out of it, and then stepping inside the hole.

I might say to myself that I while I perceive the video game Minecraft these perceptions are not relevant.  The cubes and creepers are real quite apart from my perception or experiences.  There are real objects out there.  The mountain, the dirt cubes, it is all real and objective.

This, according to Lefebvre, would also be a mistake.  Those cube pigs aren’t real or substantial at all, but just imaginary.  In Minecraft I’m surrounded by images and not things.

The trick is to figure out that a game is being played without grasping after the real world that supports this game. And instead of positing the idea of a transparent or concrete world, Lefebvre asks us to find the screen or contradiction. TC mark


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  • STaugustine

    A) Great B) what's it doing here? C) see “Guy Debord”

    • STaugustine

      (Spec.:  “Psychogeography”)

      • Douglas Lain

        My book “Pick Your Battle” is the story of my attempt to combine Urban Foraging with Psychogeography.

      • STaugustine

        Highly cool.

      • Jelly Roll Morton

        that seems interesting. “urban foraging.”

      • Douglas Lain

        In Portland, Oregon there are plenty of blackberries, raspberries, apple trees, and other fruits and veggies growing wild.  Finding this stuff in alleys or along fences constitutes urban foraging.

    • Jelly Roll Morton

      i think that was “Society of the Spectacle” at the end there. jsyk

      • Douglas Lain

        That's right.  The music and the video clips come from Debord's film SOS.

      • STaugustine

        Couldn't watch the video, only read the text!

      • Douglas Lain

        You might try the video at youtube:

      • STaugustine

        I will have a look and soon (it wasn't my browser or vimeo that prevented me from watching the video, it was my 5-year-old daughter! laugh; had to keep an ear on her)… I'm interested in what appears to be your overall project.

  • Jackm

    Wonderful post

  • jenlight

    I've never read Lefebvre. I'm now going to.

  • Jason Kephas

    'According to Lefebvre I would be wise to skip any and all inner journeys to self- discovery that might be on offer.   If I’m a character in a video game I’ll need to look outside of myself in order to figure out who I am. Rather than asking “Who am I?” I should ask, “What kind of space am I in?”'
    The tenet of existential psychology as well as mysticsm: “If you want to know where you're at, look around you.” Synchronistically I am about to apply this maxim to a spiritual teacher (you-lnow-who, and whose words I just quoted above), and I'm curious to know if you think this rule can be applied to others also (i.e., if we want to know what/who another person is, look around them and see what kind of space THEY ARE in)?

    'Now, if I look around and notice that everything is made up of perfect cubes, if I find that water, dirt, air, stone, and even pigs always appeared as blocks, and if I find myself compelled to dig rectangular passages into the earth, then I might conclude that I am a character in Notch’s popular video game entitled Minecraft.'

    There is a basic flaw in your line of reasoning here Doug: if you were a character in Minecraft, you wouldn 't know anything about Minecraft – there are no video games inside video games.The terms which we use to understand our existence have to be sourced within that existence itself. The problem is that the only way to understand our existence (as characters in a video game) is to access a point of reference outside of that existence. Hence we are using the mind to try and get free of the mind.

    • Douglas Lain

      I think this applies across the board, however one should keep in mind when seeking the identities of others that these spaces aren't freely chosen, but actually come before the subjects arrive.  These spaces interpellate us into being.

      It's clear that you've never played the video game Animal Crossing.  In Animal Crossing you collect furniture for your house, including Nintendos, and if you like you can even play Donkey Kong while playing Animal Crossing.  So there are video games inside video games.  
      The way I look at it is that there is no Real space outside the video game, but nonetheless the video game isn't reality either.  

      Look forward to talking to you about this further on the Diet Soap podcast.

      • Jason Kephas

        actually i have never played video games at all, or hardly, except as a kid when it was psace invaders and pacman all the way; so you can see how behind the tmes I am there! I think my point still *somewhat* stands, however?

        If there is no real reality then there is nothing against which to juxtapose simulated reality, surely? 

        Unless we create it?

      • Douglas Lain

        There is no ultimate reality that supports our perceptions, however that doesn't mean that there is no way to juxtapose simulations or holographs.  And it doesn't mean that the world is only perceptions either. 

        We create our world, but only after it creates us.  We can change space, but can only exist within space.

      • Jason Kephas

        oh yeah?

        how do you KNOW?

        ; )

      • Douglas Lain

        Because I'm the one?

      • STaugustine

        Speaking of which…! It's my theory that our philosophical investigations of the “real” are, largely, trumped by the powerful propaganda field we are born into:  this “reality” is installed as soon as we can understand words and interpret images and it takes years of hard work to  execute a partial de-installation.  We believe in many Fundamental Big Lies (eg:  “The News is an objective source of information, performed as a service”) which usher us through an artificial (that is, not “organic”) landscape which is very much like a video game to the extent that the point of our manipulations is whether or not someone else (never “us”) “wins”.

      • STaugustine

        So I've finally watched the video (I like the layer that the intro, with your resistant-to-scripting son, adds). Great ending (your son, again, injects a nice x-factor into your process here!) but the question it begs, for me, is more about who owns the maze (vs who made it). “False Ownership” is the big issue that the video game metaphor means for me.  I read something, last year, about the IDF using Debord's “Psychogeography” as an anti-insurgency manual…

        Here's Brigadier General Aviv Kokhavi, sounding very much like a character in a video game, speaking not as the architect of the maze (who is of little importance) but its defacto owner:

        “The space that you look at in this room is nothing but your
        interpretation of it […] The question is, how do you interpret the
        alley? […] A weapon awaits us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us
        behind the door. This is because the enemy interprets space in a
        traditional, classical manner, and I do not want to obey his
        interpretation and fall into his traps […] From now on, we all walk
        through walls!”


      • Douglas Lain

        Psychogeography is a weapon so it's no surprise that the military should have adopted it.  However, as Guy Debord said, one must learn to create disorder without loving it.  

        So, yes, what is real and who owns the world are not separate issues at all.  I agree.

      • Ario Bombacci

        If an all-powerful God exists in our Universe, can he create a rock that
        is so heavy that he himself cannot move it? If you answer “yes,” then you have
        arrived at a contradiction: God cannot both be all-powerful and also not be
        able to move the rock. If you answer “No,” then he cannot be all-powerful
        since he is unable to create that heavy of a rock. The answer “Yes” and the
        answer “No” both lead to a false statement being made. This is an example of
        one of the “inconsistencies” we have to live in within our space-time
        continuum. If we are running on a computer, then we can never know if we really
        are running on a computer despite the fact that it may very well be the case
        that we are running on a computer. Why? Because even if God himself spoke to us
        and told it to us, you could never really be sure he is God or some figment of
        your imagination, although he very well actually be God. The question of
        whether we are or are not running on a computer is “formally undecidable.”

      • Jason Kephas

        contradiction is also theological: if God is all-powerful how can he
        have an adversary called satan unless satan is also all-powerful
        (therefore God can't be). But without Satan, christians can't explain evil because God is “all-good.” 

        Christianity is a contradiction because free will has to allow for the unexpected (as well as evil), meaning God can be taken by surprise and therefore potentially outwitted. So much for omniscience.

        only solution to that contradiction is if God Himself is still partially unconscious and has
        entered in the Game also; the unconscious or fallen part of God = satan, a.ka.,

      • Douglas Lain

        As my hero Zizek says: There is no big Other, but only in Christianity does God die on the cross.

  • Mike Thompson

    It is pretty simple really. All you need to answer Ario’s question is basic reference to our knowledge of space / time and mathematics. As we know, the only thing we can be sure that has infinite mass is something that is travelling at the speed of light. To travel at the speed of light, you need to have a force source that is capable of placing an infinite amount of force on something that has mass. Therefore, because God has access to an infinite force source, he can accelerate an object to the speed of light, which then gives the object infinite mass. Since the infinite force is moving an object of infinite mass at the speed of light, Ario’s question now becomes irrelevant, just like all other attacks by an atheist against God.

    Regarding Jason’s comments, this is quite harder. Notwithstanding regarding how the concepts of good and evil explain the relationship of divinity, some people still to define these concepts. Cannot blame people for trying to figure out things they do not understand. So, let’s leave good and evil out of the discussion.
    On the other hand, free will is present only when the outcome is a guess. Free will is genuine when we are only guaranteed that we do not know the outcome of any one decision we make until after we make it. We know our perspective is too narrow to fully understand what we are bound to do and not to do, but the reality is that many choices do lead to outcomes that have more likelihood of occurring than others. Do we really have free will if the laws of physics guarantee an outcome to a particular choice? If we know something is going to help us and we choose it, we are considered prudent. If we know something is going to harm us and we choose it, we are considered irrational. Prudence and irrationality cannot coexist with free will. To be truly a free choice, each outcome of the choice needs to be just as likely as the next, so the decision is left to our freedom to choose, not to our experience, our knowledge, our good judgment or our rationalness/common sense.

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