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  • A Writing of Space:On French Critical Theory in 1973 and its Aftermath
  • Tom Conley (bio)

Je rempliz d'un beau nom ce grand espace vide
(I fill with a handsome name this great empty space)

—Joachim Du Bellay, Les regrets

[. . .] l'unique mot ESPACE, indéfiniment répété, isolé, d'une ligne à l'autre; clos sur lui-même par la recurrence du e (espace), brisé pourtant par l'adjonction interne du s (espace), qui se réfléchit en trompe l'oeil phonétique (espace); avec un centre immuable—espace—, où peut se lire l'amorce de la paix ou du tombeau—mais susceptible de faire cap de tout côté, comme on fait eau. L'espace est « découvert », « brisé » ou « vécu »—à droite, où poussent les épithètes ; l'espace est objet de « découverte », de « promenade » ou d' « odyssée », à gauche où s'alignent les substantifs qui commandent les clichés dont l'espace serait le complément obligé. Génitif d'un côté, ou pour le moin complétif, générateur de l'autre, ou en tout cas substance à qualités variables. Dans l'arbre à syntagmes ainsi érigé, l'espace est inventé par l'écriture qui fait alterner, sans jamais les combiner sur une même ligne, un espace donné comme objet stable d'exploration. [. . .]

([. . .] the unique word ESPACE can be placed, indefinitely repeated, isolated, from one line to another ; closed upon itself by the recurrence of the e (espace), yet broken by the inner adjunction of the s (espace) reflected in a phonetic trompe-l'œil (espace) ; with an immutable center—espace—, in which can be read the first letters of peace or of tomb—but liable to go everywhere, like water in the sea. Space is « discovered, » « broken, » or « lived »—on the right where epithets come forward; space is the object of « discovery », of a « walk » or an « odyssey », on the left where are aligned the substantives that order the clichés for [End Page 189] which space would be the required object. Genitive on one side, or at least objective, generative of the other, or in every event a substance with variable traits. In the tree of syntagms erected above space is invented by writing that causes to alternate—without ever combining them on the same line—a given space as a stable object of exploration. [. . .]

—Marie-Claire Ropars-Wuilleumier, Écrire l'espace

In 1974 Henri Lefebvre published La production de l'espace (The Production of Space), a study said to have changed the course of critical reflection on the world around us. In his copious work Lefebvre locates the gaps and rifts between spatial practices or representational spaces and representations of space in order to mark the brute nature of social contradiction. Over history, he shows, those individuals who practice and represent space generally own control over those who do not or cannot. The very history of the reception of Lefebvre's work has been so rich that it cannot be disentangled from debates concerning the nature of the postmodern condition. It has brought forward an element, something akin to Lacan's "real," that cannot be contained or discerned by language, the arena of life itself. The impact of La production de l'espace cannot be underestimated.1 Yet, at the same time, the work remains a legacy or a point of reference for a concurrent labor born at the same moment and of a different texture than Lefebvre's: an activity that I would like to call a writing of space, a labor by which authors of different formation engage and invent alternative or other spaces within the texture of their own reflections on space. Like Lefebvre, they respond to a anxiety about the condition of space in which they live, but unlike him, they embody, in the gist of their own writing, spaces alternative to those in which they live. What follows is thus aimed at discerning why and how space emerged in the field of critical theory when it did and, in turn, at showing how the reflections remain crucial for critical practice here and now.

The first of the two epigraphs above is...