Space and non-place

November 13, 2009

Arnold Odermatt

Interesting discussion last night about the nature of space. While this is going to be fairly standard stuff for those who spend time reading theory there are a couple of things that I want to note down here, in part because they follow some of the older stuff thematically, and for the rather more prosaic reason that I won’t lose or forget them. But first: a quick note on the photo. One of Arnold Odermatt’s (relatively) famous depictions of the aftermath of road accidents. I want to come back to this in a moment to address the issue of non-places.

Firstly some thoughts on the discussion of yesterday. If we follow Lefebvre’s notion that spaces are slices of time; a record of time in time, and that for Marx, “economy of time” is that which “all economy reduces itself” what are the implications for space? To take a quick step back, the contention here is that capitalism generates time, it requires a formalised and universalised time in order to function. The capitalist tool of the railroad that Pynchon quite neatly sums up with through Frank in Against the Day, asking “who at some point hadn’t come to hate the railroad? It penetrated, it broke apart cities and wild herds and watersheds, it created economic panics and armies of jobless men and women, and generations of hard, bleak city-dwellers with no principles who ruled with unchecked power, it took away everything indiscriminately, to be sold, to be slaughtered, to be led beyond the reach of love.”

The railroad is then, a transformative tool of spatiotemporal application. It is used to move things rapidly, and over vast distances. It compresses the space and time but requires a rigidity of time to operate. Gone are the localised notions of time, the pursuits that Lefebvre would charaterise in terms of rhythms; time according to community, to local conditions, and instead, a time is imposed. A universal time, with Greenwich as its epicentre. So if capitalism is by extension time, if it implies a level of generative interdependence, can this extension be applied to space? If space is time recorded, can we then say that capitalism is space? That it generates the spatial conditions of its realisation concomitantly with this realisation?

Lefebvre argues for the stratification of space into the absolute (space that is used to satisfy peoples needs and desires – a space of use value), and abstract space (the space of domination – of manufactured needs and desires – the space of capitalism. This distinction then, draws on the separation of use and exchange value in Marx, a distinction that has itself come under ontological scrutiny, that the emergence of use value only comes with that of exchange value. Does this then hold for the split of space into the absolute and abstract? Is there an issue with the notion of an absolute space as defined against the abstract space of capitalism? I think that it’s perhaps useful to view this in terms of the underlying spatial constraints of private property: that in the ownership of land – and the subsequent ownership of space that’s derived from it – we have to define absolute space. So, I’d suggest that absolute space does not exist prior to abstract space, but emerges in a state of flux, as the dialectical generation of a dominated-non-dominated, owned-non-owned, formulation.

But, the larger concern here then is space outside of capitalism. With the globalised nature (I’m not going to even try and define globalisation here but follow me if you will) of capitalism, is there space outside of capitalism? Foucault talks of emergent heterotopias, areas of freedom that occasionally emerge under the manifestations of the power relations of capital but are these spaces outside of capitalism? Is there room to allow a hegemonic drive for the incorporation of oppositional cultures both residual and emergent that allows space for these to develop, or is there space of genuine rupture – of absolute rather than abstract nature?

Just to go back to the photo: non-places, in the Kantian formulation spaces that are means to an end as opposed to the location of ends? That of transition: motorways, lifts, in Augé’s definition, supermarkets. Does the event of the car crash redefine the non-place as means-to, into a place of an end? I’d suggest that it does, where there exists a break in the mimetic or automatic routine, a change in the function of the non-place there exists scope to redefine non-place as place. There is, a certain systemic closure that takes little account of temporality in defining non-places; a non-place may be such now, but not tomorrow and yesterday. More account of the practice of spatiotemporal flows, less categorisation of spatiotemporal objects, then.


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