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2002 Spaces of Capital/Mapping the Present (with David Cunningham)

2002 Spaces of Capital/Mapping the Present (with David Cunningham) in Radical Philosophy 114 (July/August 2002)


A review of  Stuart Elden, Mapping the Present: Heidegger, Foucault and the Project of a Spatial History (London and New York: Continuum, 2001) and David Harvey, Spaces of Capital: Towards a Critical Geography, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001).


Excerpts below, the full article can be found at  Radical Philosophy.


In a 1967 lecture Foucault ventured that the ʻpresent epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of spaceʼ. This statement prefigures the general explosion in writings about the subject over the last two decades. This turn towards spatial questions is most often presented as a compensation for the ʻmodernist marginalization of space and prioritization of timeʼ. While such a view is not uncontentious – it ignores, for example, the explicit emergence of questions of space within much early modernist art and architecture – it is clearly true that the marking out of supposedly ʻpostmodernistʼ theoretical concerns has relied a great deal upon this perceived neglect. The increasing decline in plausibility undergone by the notion of postmodernism raises a question, therefore, of how – ʻpost-postmodernismʼ – the current theoretical import of questions of space, and their relation to temporal problematics, is to be critically assessed.

One welcome result of the renewed emphasis on space has been the reconstruction of geography as an academic discipline. Nobody has played a more important role in this process than David Harvey. If nothing else, the publication of Spaces of Capital – collecting together essays from 1974 to the present – provides a useful overview of the recent history of theoretical debates in this area, as well as tracing Harveyʼs own, more particular, attempt to establish a Marxian geography. As a close reader of Marx, Harvey is always lucid and insightful, while teasing out those geographical dimensions of Marxʼs thought that have customarily been overlooked. Hopefully this collection will serve to make his work better known among scholars working on Marxʼs theory of the state and the spatio-temporal character of capitalist accumu-lation. Harveyʼs writings on what he terms the ʻspatial fixʼ – referring to the presentation of geographical expansion in imperialism and colonialism as a solution to the ʻinternal contradictionsʼ of capitalism – are particularly productive with regard to contemporary questions surrounding the processes of globalization.

The fact that this is a collection of essays, written over the course of more than twenty-five years, means (inevitably) that there is some repetition: the concepts of both the spatial fix and ʻmilitant particularismʼ (derived from Raymond Williams) get several – near identical outings. Yet part of the pleasure and interest of the book is in tracing Harveyʼs reworkings and reconsiderations of the problems that most concern him. Or, in some cases, not. For one of the disappointing lacunas in Spaces of Capital is Harveyʼs failure to review his own earlier usage of the term ʻpostmodernityʼ, which provided him with the title of his most famous and popular book. Already in that work there was an implied need for a debunking of self-proclaimed postmodernistsʼ claims upon spatial concerns, as constructed through a reductive and depoliticized description of modernism. However, the return to an explicit rethinking of the spatial conditions of modernity itself, which this clearly demands, is, sadly, never quite followed through here. That said, as the concept of postmodernity comes to disappear gradually from Harveyʼs writing, so, too, does his work seem to become more impressive. It is encouraging that the standout pieces are the most recent ones, dealing with the dialectics of particularity and universality and what he calls ʻthe space/place dialecticʼ in global capitalist development. Harveyʼs rethinkings, in spatial terms, of such hoary old notions as ʻgrassroots activismʼ and ʻthe personal is politicalʼ are bravura performances with much potential for contemporary political theory, as well as for geography and urban studies.

Stuart Elden, while echoing this reassertion of ʻthe importance of space to social and political theoryʼ, seeks, in Mapping the Present, to elaborate a more explicitly philosophical account of its conceptual implications, warning against the drift into an unreflective, ʻconceptually weakʼ empiricism apparent in ʻthe many practical analyses that have dominated recent researchʼ. Where Harvey looks to Marx and Hegel, the resources to which Elden turns are drawn from the works of Heidegger and Foucault…

.. the most intriguing material in Mapping the Present is that dealing with Heideggerʼs work on the Greek understanding of the polis as ʻthe historical site, the there in which, out of which, and for which history happensʼ. Eldenʼs reading is soph-isticated and suggestive, and it provides him with a strong philosophical grounding for his concluding assertion that ʻpolitics is inherently spatialʼ in a manner beyond the grasp of any simple account of the ʻpolitical economy of spaceʼ..


.. Harveyʼs work appears to offer the more fertile resources for a critical account of the contemporary spaces of capital in its focus upon the dialectic of space and place. This is exemplified by the bookʼs final essay, ʻThe Art of Rentʼ, which considers capitalismʼs simultaneous production of spaces of globalized homogeneity and reconfigured spaces of what have traditionally been conceived of as forms of locality, region or territory, in a manner which is alive, in a properly dialectical sense, to both the political possibilities and dangers of these new spaces and spatial relations…

.. If the political is indeed ʻinherently spatialʼ, it is inherently temporal also. One cannot be articulated without the other. The challenge is thus how to think these two inseparable conditions of the political together. One possible route that such a thinking might take is through the work of Henri Lefebvre, who casts a shadow over both of these books while rarely being engaged as such. In the case of Elden, in particular, it is surprising – given that he himself has translated and edited Lefebvreʼs writings – that he fails to make use of the many conceptual tools that The Production of Space offers, which might have served to complicate his rather static understanding of different types of space and their temporal dimensions. Preeminent amongst these would be Lefebvreʼs proposal for a form of ʻrhythm analysisʼ – combining the spatial and the temporal, the bodily and the social – as the model for a spatial history where, in his words, ʻhere at least, “lived” and “conceived” are closeʼ.




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