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…er than they are: Adventures in Space with Henri Lefebvre

Tom Liam Lynch gives a semi-literal account of writing a literature review that not only addresses the spatialization of literacy, but is written spatially.

You open your eyes and are immediately embarrassed. Though no one’s looking at you, you’re sure you were out cold for at least forty-five minutes. And you know you probably snored. In a library, of all places. Granted, the book you’re reading isn’t likely to be called a page-turner. It’s by French theorist Henri Lefebvre, and it’s for graduate students. Each page needs to be churned rather than turned. But you made it through the second chapter; and, well, then you passed out. You remember scribbling peripheral notes after reading each paragraph of The Production of Space (1991), wresting meaning from the author’s words. As you continue collecting your wits off the tabletop, you notice that your inky marginalia is bleeding off the edge of the page – a sure sign that you drooled during your catatonic collapse.

The first chapter of The Production of Space is entitled ‘Plan of the Present Work’; the second chapter, ‘Social Space’. You chuckled to yourself at times while reading the first, because, despite its title, nothing seemed planned about it. You even remarked last night to your friend the Education Professor, while sipping your fourth glass of wine, that the reason Lefebvre’s writing is so convoluted is because he didn’t rewrite his first drafts: “I’m a teacher, damn it, and I know what unrevised writing looks like, and that chapter is sloppy! Don’t give me any of that laudation of the ‘Brilliant Theorist’ – that dude published his first draft!” You’re remembering this conversation with your friend when the Brilliant Theorist himself appears breathing behind you. “I prefer to be called Henri,” he says in a voice that rolls lowly along, like a hillside. “Give me my book and let me see what you have written.”

Before you can stop him he snatches the book – his book – from your hands. He saunters away, sits cross-legged in an armchair nearby, and begins flipping through his book. You are fairly certain he’s reading your notes, not his own words. This is all really too much for you, as you are quite sure that Henri Lefebvre died in 1991.

When he returns, in what could have been minutes but is as likely hours he seems ready to give a lecture. His eyes fix on you and he begins, “What is your name?”

You reply that you’re a graduate student, and your name is –

“Well then Graduate, ‘(social) space is a (social) product’.” (p.26)

You blink.

“This is not as simple as it seems. Space has been understood for most of history as emptiness, a vessel to be filled. But (social) space is not an outcome… it’s the source of all rationality (p.72). I see by the look on your face that you are skeptical – or puzzled, or still waking up from your sleep – so let me try it this way: ‘Naturally, “common-sense” space, Euclidean space and perspectivist space did not disappear in a puff of smoke without leaving any trace in our consciousness, knowledge or educational methods… what is needed is a reversal of that tendency’ (p.26). Or I could say, ‘In reality, social space “incorporates” social action, the actions of subjects both individual and collective who are born and who die, who suffer and who act’ (p.33).”

In the effort to follow him, you ask, “Are there other spaces in addition to this social space you describe – the embodied interactions of individuals who create spaces of engagement ?”

Henri nods to the rhythm of your voice, taking in each clause as if inhaling incense during a sacred rite. He raises three fingers in the air as he starts again.

“Yes, Graduate. In addition to social space, there are representations of space, and representational spaces. A representation of space might be a floor plan – for example, of a cathedral. It represents the space; but like any map, isn’t the space exactly, only a way of communicating it. Representational space is the space of codes, metaphors, rituals, maybe even of lexicon. Its meaning is in the ‘clandestine or underground side of social life, as also to art’ (p.33). Representations of space, representational spaces, and social space intersect often, never one space privileged over the others. Do you understand this ‘conceptual triad’?” (p.33)

You bob your head, hoping the bouncing motion will somehow jar your brain into comprehension. Henri’s brow tightens with excitement. His arm shoots into the air, again holding up three fingers. You are struck by the verve evident in his whole being, most notably in the melodic swirling of his voice. “There is also the space of perception – the space of people living out their day physically and socially. Then there is the conceived space of the scientists and planners – they ‘identify what is lived and what is perceived with what is conceived… This is the dominant space in any society’ (p.39). Finally, there are the representational spaces of the imagination – of the artists and writers, but also other ‘users’ who render that space lived (p.39). It is with these triads in mind that I speak of space. And when you allow yourself to imagine the reality of these spaces, your entire outlook will shift, will be ruptured!”

He sees that you are beginning to follow him. And you are. It’s his cathedral example that helps most: the perceived space of congregants, let’s say at a mass, with a minister at the alter; the conceived spaces all around you, given form in the pews aligned so as to face the authority at the front and the vaulted ceilings drawing your eyes to Godly murals of the heavens, all subtly arranged by some worldly architect; the lived space of crucifixes and wine and bread and painted or carved thorns to effect ecstasy. You think you understand now what Henri means – that space is a production: it is the event and the participants and the moment and the preparation and the memory all in one happening. “It’s like a metaphor in poetry!” you exclaim, making the phantasmal theorist shudder (you are in a library, you remember too late). You continue in a softer tone: “There are the letters of the words that constitute the metaphor; there is the denotative meaning; and there is the connotative, poetic meaning that somehow emerges from letters on a page…”

“Perhaps, but be careful there. You must not fall into the modernist’s pit: ‘readability-visibility-intelligibility’ (p.96). Such attempts to categorize knowledge are violent, Graduate: the moment you ‘get it’, you kill it! You must try to imagine beyond these fetishes –” (p.97)

“Fetishes? Come on! Are you saying that somehow, making sense of things is bad, is wrong? That somehow we can’t even trust what we perceive, perhaps?”

“The artist’s claim that ‘space can be shown by means of space itself’ (p.96) is ridiculous! Most images try, to use your words, to ‘make sense’ of things: ‘cutting things up and rearranging them, decoupage and montage – these are the alpha and omega of the art of image-making’ (p.97). But the space we are talking about must be lived, not just seen with the eyes. To trust only the eyes leads to the hellish state we find ourselves in – one in which living, breathing, love-making people are stuffed into categories like man or woman, white or black. The eyes fetishize abstractions, Graduate (p.97). This leads to the uncritical acceptance of absolutes like the State or the Church or the Academy. ‘This obsession with absolute space presents obstacles on every side… it pushes us back towards a purely descriptive understanding, for it stands opposed to any analytic approach and even more to any global account of the generative process in which we are interested’.” (p.122)

At this point your eyes dart to a manuscript on the desk. Henri sees you glance and reaches for the stack of paper, but you snatch it away in time. He says nothing to you, holding your eyes with his own. He picks up a book on the table, and smirks. “What’s this?” He seems as if he’s going to laugh, but out of wonder: “Spatializing Literacy Research and Practice.” (Edited by K. M. Leander & M. Sheehy, 2004.)

“It’s a collection of essays I’m trying to make sense of – trying to read, I mean.”

“Do they mention me?” Henri asks with a look resembling that of a pop star rather than a scholar.

“Some do explicitly; others in spirit. The introduction speaks about you a bit…”

“These are scholars, then?”

You nod in affirmation.

“I am wary of scholarship that seems too neat and tidy,” he declares as he flips through the book. “I always thought of writing as a nonlinear process, you know.” You had indeed noticed. At this point, you wonder if perhaps the previous evening’s unbridled wine-guzzling has caused this strange conversation to occur.

“And what are these?” he asks, sifting through some other notes.

“They’re my summaries of a few chapters from that book, Henri. They aren’t interesting…” Your attempt to deflect his curiosity doesn’t work, as he’s already scanning through them. Then, much to your horror, Henri Lefebvre begins reading a summary aloud, with a volume level befitting a sporting event, or public mockery – you aren’t quite sure which.

Henri bellows:

“A qualitative study of how two female youths (both of whom emigrated to Australia) construct their selves through popular culture, school, and especially their Christian heritage. Her theoretical approach uses rhizomatic cartography in an attempt to capture the sprawling (and even contradictory) sophistication of these youths’ construction of selves. Hagood draws attention to the subtleties youths use to communicate their selves with others who know how to ‘read’ their signs. The method of collecting data is at times unclear, and perhaps even borderline unprofessional.”
(ibid, M.C. Hagood, ‘A rhizomatic cartography of adolescents, popular culture, and constructions of self’.)

“Well, aren’t you a person of strong impressions! ‘Unprofessional’ you think?! Mind yourself, Graduate… by ‘rhizomatic’ I assume you mean approaching research data and method in nonlinear, nonhierarchical, organic ways? The word rhizome comes from the Greek for root, you know. Picture the way roots sprawl and twist…” He looks back down. A few patrons scuttle out of the exit as he continues reading, even louder now:

“The reconstruction of dialogue, for example, isn’t clearly coming from a transcript – and it strikes me at times as oversimplified. What most interests me is the notion of rhizomatic cartography. While Hagood does place it at the forefront of her article, I’m not sure what effect it has in the end on the work produced – the final product seemed fairly un-rhizomatic in its representation.”

Others in the library are racing for the doors, leaving a trail of academic resentment. Apparently the Frenchman’s performance rendered even headphones insufficient for maintaining focus. One particularly disturbed student said that Henri was an ‘asshole’ before he relocated himself.

“What is it you mean by ‘I’m not sure what effect it has in the end on the work produced – the final product seemed fairly un-rhizomatic’?” Henri asks.

You’re past the point of embarrassment (which is fortunate because there’s more to come), and reply, “I meant that the form Hagood uses to represent her study doesn’t itself embody the rhizome. She draws a diagram that conceives of her data in terms of a rhizome – which is better, I guess, than a T-Chart or some hierarchical structure – but she doesn’t live the rhizome in her work; she doesn’t ‘provoke action’. Her final essay reads like any other academic essay. It’s like the rhizome was a lens she used to analyze her data – but she doesn’t collect her data rhizomatically, nor does she write rhizomatically.”

Hmm. It’s as if she maintains a certain distance from her work by using the rhizome simply as a lens; or rather, by leaving only the conceptual space.”

“That’s what I mean,” you jump in: “She could have collected data rhizomatically. I’m not sure what that looks like, though. Perhaps it’s more emergent, less calculated. Perhaps it’s open to serendipity more than she suggests.”

Henri’s interested in what you’re saying – which is why he flips to another summary. Then he slaps a desk with your notes as he yells, “And what about this one?” He walks away at an impressive pace for a lifeless man, lies down on a table, takes off his glasses, and holds the page close to his eyes. Then, with a hint of strange affection, Henri recites another of your notes:

“assembles construction from social and spatial theory in order to discuss literacy formations that have had a political effect. Kamberelis strings together various thinkers to arrive at a rhizomatic theory that identifies lines of articulation (ones linked to the status quo) and lines of flight (ones that open up the space for social and political change). He also uses the terms ‘pack’ and ‘mass multiplicities’. The first refers to the way in which constructs of individuals and de-centralized institutions can challenge and subvert oppressors; the second refers to the institutional/individual forces that oppress the disempowered. Kamberelis then applies these ideas to various successful movements to subvert oppressive forces and achieve political change. For example, he discusses the way in which slaves in the American South would hang out quilts to dry – a seeming line of articulation (that is, apparently maintaining the oppressive will of slave owners), but in actuality, the quilts were stitched to convey a political message to others around, thereby creating a subversive line of flight and opening up the possibility of de-territorialization.”
(cf G. Kamberelis, ‘The rhizome and the pack: Liminal literacy formations with political teeth’ in Spatializing Literacy Research and Practice.)

The way he slowed his pace when he read the last word, his pitch leaping on de-, confirms it: this man is both endearing and insufferable.

“What, Graduate, do you make of this?” he asks, waving your notes in the air.

“I was especially interested in the way he describes lines of flight and lines of articulation.” You are standing with your arms folded. Henri takes no notice of your defensiveness, and waits for you to continue. So you do: “There is something about the way Kamberelis connects lines to social and political change that resonates… In my mind, it seems related to what you say about space. It’s not just a metaphor. It’s more than that. He uses the word ‘lines’ with lived experience in mind – in terms of action and interaction. He means it not as an analogy but as an experience, as Ellsworth describes (in Places of Learning, 2005) –”

Before you can say any more, Henri interrupts: “‘the experience of knowledge and self as simultaneously in the making can even be said to preexist cognition’ (p.2). This ‘in-the-making’, she maintains, is beyond language’s purview. I’ve read her,” he says. You refrain from asking him how, in fact, reading practices of the non-living compare to that of the breathing.

“I think Kamberelis does a better job than Hagood in trying to embody rhizomatic thinking,” you pick up, “But it’s still more cartography than it is rhizome. The result, I think, is like trying to feel the ecstasy of a mass by studying the blueprint of a cathedral. Without the perceived space of other social beings – peoples’ experiences of life – and without the infusion of representational space – the symbols, signs and chants – the findings are all conceptual, and lacking. And the other thinkers in the book do the same!” You’re on a roll now, evidenced by the forceful change in your voice, and in your face, which is wide-eyed with sudden enlightenment: “One researcher uses space only as a lens – which is itself limiting – and she seems to define space as some physical-social thing (E.B. Moje, ‘Powerful spaces: Tracing the out-of-school literacy spaces of Latino/a youth’ in Spatializing Literacy Research and Practice). Another does an admirable job conceiving and even perceiving spatially (ibid, K.M. Leander, ‘Reading the spatial histories of positioning in a classroom literacy event’), but he still presents his work in a mostly conventional way. Sure, he includes more transcribed dialogue, and even images of student work, but in the end the article feels confined by the Academy and its expectations.”

“So, what about that manuscript in your hand?” Henri inquires, spying the way you have been clutching it ever tighter.

“It’s mine.”

“Yours?” He seems newly intrigued. “Let me see it,” he tenderly insists.


“Why would you say no? We are both thinkers –”

“Look, it’s an article I wrote (T.L. Lynch, ‘Re-readings and literacy: How second readings might open third spaces’, Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 52 (4), 2008). I can see that those other researchers talk about space but don’t embody space in their research. I can see that. This article I wrote, it… it does the same thing. And I’ll tell you why it does that. I wanted it to be published, Henri. It’s that simple! At first, I wanted to write about a powerful moment in my high school classroom. As I continued, I thought others might be interested in it. When I sent the manuscript to the Journal, they accepted it – but only with revisions. Re-vision. The word still makes me shudder. It wasn’t my vision that started to take shape, it was theirs.”

“Whose ‘theirs’?”

Theirs! My vision was of your theory about the production of space. Theirs was neater, in specified organized sections, using certain ‘suggested’ researchers in my article. So I sat and tried to write my experience into their mold.”

He listens intently, now with fury in a flushed face. You go on. “There you have it. I was bullied, damn it! The Academy kicked my ideas out of the margins and into its perfectly defined center. It straightened my ideas out – letting me keep a few fluffy metaphors here and there – beating the life out of my words, and forcing me to conceptualize the way they wanted.”

“And what are you going to do about it, Graduate?”

You pause. Do about it? What can you do about it? You know that, despite your victimized rant, you wanted that article in the journal, and you say as much to Henri: “Listen, I wanted discourse, and that’s what they gave me – a lesson in Academic discourse.”

Henri is no longer merely pontificating, he is zealous: “Apart from what it ‘re-marks’ in relation to space, discourse is nothing more than a lethal void – mere verbiage. The analogy between the theory of space (and of its production) and the theory of language (and of its production) can only be carried so far. The theory of space describes and analyses textures. But the straight line, the curved line, the checkboard pattern, and the radial-concentric (center versus periphery) are forms and structures rather than textures, albeit that the production of space often lays hold of such structures and integrates them into a great variety of textures. A texture implies meaning – but a meaning for whom? For some reader? No. Rather, for someone who lives and acts in the space under consideration – a subject with a body…” (cf The Production of Space, and E.W. Soja, Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and other real-and-imagined places, 1996.)

“How can scholars live spatiality? They have to publish, and can only do so by fitting the mold. Generic Academic prose cannot be deposed!”

“Yes it can, Graduate,” Henri interjects, reading both your body and your eyes. “Write about this, but not in generic prose. Do not write an article. Write a story. Continue producing new spaces, and invite others to produce with you… Don’t re-produce the writings of the center. Experience the margins! Begin as we began: You open your eyes and are immediately embarrassed. Though no one’s looking at you, you’re sure you were out cold for at least forty-five minutes. And you know you probably snored… Use the second person to blur the conceived, perceived, and lived spaces of the writer, the narrator, and the reader. And end the piece so that the reader must continue producing and experiencing and living.”

So it is you, Reader, who must produce new spaces, who must imagine things as oth…

© Dr Thomas Liam Lynch 2013

Tom Liam Lynch, EdD, is Assistant Professor of Education Technology at Pace University, New York. His research sits at the intersection of critical discourse analysis, literacy education, learning technologies, and software studies. Please visit


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