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.