- Spatial Ecologies: Urban Sites, State and World-Space in French Cultural Theory by Verena Andermatt Conley
The latest book by Verena Andermatt Conley, renowned feminist scholar and pioneering ecocritic, follows the "spatial turn" of French thought in the wake of May 1968 in order to trace how space "can now be appreciated for its ecological implications" (1). Conley's book has two separate aspects. First, it is a guide to French spatial theory, which will prove useful for those new to the field or for those, especially in English departments, who are familiar with one or two works of these theorists but who lack the historical and cultural context of French thought since the 1960s. But it is also a re-reading of these texts in light of today's pressing ecological concerns with an eye [End Page 180] to finding new critical tools that could build habitable spaces and spaces for resistance. Conley's book is a success on both accounts—she presents a group of notably diverse and difficult thinkers in a clear and engaging way that is accessible to the uninitiated, while also providing valuable insight for those of us who have been immersed in French spatial theory.
The nine French spatial theorists presented here (Lefebvre, Certeau, Baudrillard, Augé, Virilio, Deleuze and Guattari, Latour, and Balibar) are more or less familiar to English-speaking audiences (Bruno Latour perhaps overly so, Marc Augé not nearly enough). Conley shows the richness of spatial thinking in France, and also provides glimpses of an even wider field of spatial thinking in France, from Henri Bergson to Gaston Bachelard, Jean-Paul Sartre, Louis Marin, Georges Perec, Hélène Cixous, Michel Serres, Jacques Rancière, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Michel Foucault. She carefully presents the thought of each of her authors in his or her own terms, with the result that complex notions of space, the city, the West, and globalization are crafted anew in each chapter. Space means something different for each of these thinkers; separating and juxtaposing the diverging formulations brings out the richness of the term. Each theorist redefines, reinvents, and distorts concepts that exist within the specific ecosystem of French thought, and that might seem opaque to English speakers without Conley's work of translation and interpretation.
Chapters on catastrophic or paranoid thinkers (Virilio, Baudrillard) are mixed with more practical thinkers (Balibar, Certeau), a structuring device that allows the reader to see how others can productively appropriate critical tools invented by even the most pessimistic of writers. Virilio's influence on Deleuze and Guattari, Balibar's incorporation and critique of Lefebvre and Deleuze and Guattari, the friendships forged between Baudrillard, Augé and Virilio, all constitute essential details that contextualize what amounts to thirty or more years of dialogue. The only one to seem slightly out of place is Latour, whose media presence and relative lack of interaction with the other writers studied in the book makes of him a useful insider/outsider precisely because his new perspectives prove to be less convincing.
Conley begins with Henri Lefebvre, a writer whose work reflects the changing spatial realities in France from World War II through the end of the trente glorieuses. His seminal work, La Production de l'espace from 1974, inaugurates the search in France for the creation of habitable spaces in a world pulverized by capitalism. Conley follows with a chapter on Michel de Certeau, "as a foil and complement to Lefebvre" (28), who argues for the ability of the ordinary man to refashion space in the everyday. Space [End Page 181] becomes a practice opposed to "proper places." To deepen and illustrate Certeau's argument, Conley evokes the work of novelist, politician, and sociologist Azouz Begag, which describes the immigrant's experience and subsequent invention of space in France. Juxtaposed to the art of spatial practice of Certeau, chapter three focuses on Jean Baudrillard's conception of media spaces, spaces of control that have substituted simulacra for the real. While Baudrillard uncovers dangerous...