Canadian Journal of Sociology Online September-October 2000

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Rob Shields
Lefebvre, Love & Struggle: Spatial Dialectics
New York: Routledge, 1999, 225 pp. $CDN 37.99, $US 24.99 paper (0-415-09370-8), $CDN 105.00, $US 75.00 cloth (0-415-09369-4)

Rob Shields begins his critical tribute to Henri Lefebvre by depicting his desktop and the special place La Production de l’espace occupied for a decade. Lefebvre’s most renowned work in the English speaking world has inspired many social scientists to what Edward Soja (1996, 2000) has called the ‘spatial turn’ of the 1990s. But Shields announces upfront that his book serves as a guide to the ensemble of Lefebvre’s work, uncovering untranslated, unpublished works and personal correspondence. With roots in Marxism, Existentialism, and Romanticism, Lefebvre touches on subjects relevant to sociology and other social sciences such as the everyday, the urban, l’espace, modernity, and alienation.

Why write such a book? While Henri Lefebvre is sometimes considered obsolete in some contemporary French academic circles, he remains a shining star and a source of inspiration around the world, particularly in the Americas and Europe. Shields asserts that his work served as a ‘conducting wire’ to many generations of activists and intellectuals, from the Surrealists and Dadaists, to the Parti Communiste Français (PCF), to the Internationale Situationiste, to May 1968, to today’s postmodernism, cultural and body politics. In his living years in France, Lefebvre stood as an unorthodox Marxist, a vocal critic of structuralism and economism, and an advocate of ‘engaged sociology’ by bringing philosophy and social sciences together. “He is perhaps the only Communist – certainly the only political economist – to have dared assert that all he had ever written about was love,” writes Shields (p. 7). Indeed, he presents an ambiguous Lefebvre, ambiguous towards the PCF, towards other French intellectuals, an opportunistic and paternalistic writer, but always true to his core ideas: humanism, revolution, and a fully lived life.

Opening this book, I expected another unreserved tribute. Rather, Shields offers critical reflections on Lefebvre's work, situated within its historical context, with interesting details about the man’s intellectual, political, and personal trajectories. For instance, we learn that his formation in Catholic theology after the First World War inspired Lefebvre’s three-part dialectics, and that his roller-coaster writing style is the result of dictating his texts to typist-lovers in a question/answer Socratic manner and rarely editing them. Shields’ book is fluid to read, although there are some repetition caused by an overlapping division of chapters both by theme and by intellectual trajectories. The introductory chapter situates Lefebvre’s significance historically and geographically.

The second chapter relates Lefebvre’s trajectories between 1905-45, when he developed his humanistic interpretation of Marxism. Shields depicts the young, sexually liberated and adventurous Lefebvre. This young spirit is the living core of Shields’ book. Lefebvre wanted to fully live his philosophy of adventure in order to escape from the banality of the everyday world and consequently spur a ‘romantic’ social revolution. Revolution was supposed to be fun and spontaneous, not led by the party vanguard or by organic intellectuals. Chapter 3 repeats the preceding, but attempts to dig more into the philosophical, artistic, and political influences on Lefebvre’s writing. Shields discusses his links with Surrealists.

The next chapter pursues with a discussion of alienation, the spine of Lefebvre’s work according to Shields. The only example of a spontaneous festive revolution during Lefebvre’s life in France was sparked by his students in Nanterre in May 1968. It was a revolution spurred not by economic strife, but alienation, led by middle-class students not the proletariat. Alienation, for Lefebvre is a concept referring to the embodied and the alien, the foreign and the distant. Escapes from alienation are often manipulated by the State and Capital through forms of mystification. This was the core of Lefebvre’s critical analysis of Fascism. But one can also escape alienation through ‘moments of presence.’ Chapter 5 is devoted to explaining this often neglected concept in Lefebvre’s writing. “Moments are those instants that we would each, according to our own personal criteria, categorise as ‘authentic’ moments that break through the dulling monotony of the ‘taken for granted’” (p. 58). Situating Lefebvre’s writing in relation to Adorno, Benjamin, and Horkheimer, Shields writes that he insisted on living as an oeuvre, a work of art, a nietzschean reconciliation of the mind and the body, a Situationist moment concretised in the social context. “Everyday Life = Banality / Moments of Presence” (p. 61). Chapter 6 then continues on Lefebvre’s monumental work on the everyday (le quotidien). Influences by Heidegger, Lukács, and Braudel are highlighted by Shields.

The chapter on Lefebvre’s breakthrough in dialectical thinking is preceded by an interlude on his intellectual relations in the postwar years, again with some repetition. Spatialising the dialectic as Lefebvre did was an important step. But Shields critically observes that “he does not fully return to the dialectic itself to work out the logical structure of this new triadic form, a form that can only be called postmodern and that would find its roots to lie not only in Hegel, Marx and Lefebvre but also in the work of Emmanuel Levinas’ ‘alterity’, Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’ and Gloria Anzaldua’s ‘bordercrossing’, and in the work of others who have sought to piece together the logic of stories told ‘alongside’ official histories (Bakhtin)” (p. 152).

The longest chapter of the book dwells on the production of space. It is preceded by a short discussion of the relations between Lefebvre and Existentialists. Lefebvre’s work on space is divided in two themes, the urban and the State, before turning to his La production de l’espace. Why such a detailed theory of space? Lefebvre wanted to explain why capitalist accumulation did not occur earlier. Marx did not insist enough on the links between urbanisation and industrialisation. For Lefebvre, space remains the only way to concretise his romantic utopia into reality. His spatial works draws attention to the distorted forms of resistance to alienation invisible to the theory of false consciousness, because they occur in the situations of everyday life .

In the end, Shields underlines both Lefebvre’s strengths and weaknesses, particularly with regards to feminism and multiculturalism, his omitted references and debts (Shields, for his part, offers an excellent bibliography and index), his opportunistic behavior with regards to the PCF, his silences during the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The book offers a very interesting discussion of the problems of translation between languages, cultures, and historical contexts in order to explain the particularities of Lefebvre’s thinking in relation to Anglophone works (his use of the Latin origin of the word alienation is a very good example). We are confronted here with an intriguing portrait of a man who lived his life fully! I recommend this book for those who are looking for an analysis of Lefebvre’s wide-ranging work, its historical context, and its legacy, synthesised in a sometimes repetitive manner, but nevertheless very compelling and sparkled with parallels with contemporary intellectual work.

Julie-Anne Boudreau
Department of Urban Planning
University of California, Los Angeles
September 2000
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