- Urbi et Orbi
The processes of ecology are not mocked.—Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind
In Patrick Keiller’s (2010) Robinson in Ruins, a film set against the backdrop of the current global financial crisis, the narrator describes the film’s eponymous antihero, Robinson, visiting the local library to photocopy Fredric Jameson’s “anticipation of the crisis” (Keiller 2012: 14). The voice-over proceeds to quote Jameson’s (1994: xii) now famous line: “It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imagination.” Verena Conley’s Spatial Ecologies—billed as an “open-ended sequel” (6) to her Ecopolitics: The Environment in Poststructuralist Thought (1997)—might be seen as a kind of user’s manual for correcting this deficiency in our collective imagination. A major reassessment of the “spatial turn” in critical and cultural theory, the book advances a broadly ecological argument by tracing the spatial thought of ten key French theorists across eight main chapters: 1. Henri Lefebvre (“Lived Spaces”); 2. Michel de Certeau (and Azouz Begag: “Anthropological Spaces”); 3. Jean Baudrillard (“Media Places”); 4. Marc Augé (“Non-Places”); 5. Paul Virilio (“Speed Space”); 6. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (“Space and Becoming”); 7. Bruno Latour (“Common Spaces”); and 8.Étienne Balibar (“Spatial Fictions” or “Fictional Spaces”: fortuitously, the contents and chapter heading don’t quite concur). In the space available here, I will offer a broad-brush outline of what is [End Page 377] an ambitious, authoritative, and highly accomplished text.
Taking “Space as a Critical Concept”—the title of the introduction—Conley’s starting point is to suggest that, since 1968, French thought has been largely constructed on the back of a “spatial crisis” that, over time, has “broadened to include consideration of the well-being of the planet” (1). In the epigraph to “Conclusion: Future Spaces,” Conley (145) cites Bruno Latour to the effect that “space is now that of a fully urbanized planet.” Although Henri Lefebvre’s ( 2003: 1) opening gambit in The Urban Revolution—“Society has been completely urbanized”—is not cited as the epigraph to the introduction, it may well have been. Conley’s critical appreciation of space takes its cue from Lefebvre’s thesis—fashioned in the wake of May 1968—that the contradictions between industrialism and urbanism had been resolved firmly in favor of the latter. If Lefebvre’s “urban revolution” was a prescient formulation of what would later be recognized as “globalization,” as Conley contends, it is unsurprising that Lefebvre should be given pride of place in the opening chapter. That chapter’s subtitle—“Lived Spaces”—is also noteworthy: the idea of “habitability” it encapsulates sounds the keynote for the book as a whole. Thus, far from being limited to what might be conventionally seen as “green” issues, Conley’s eponymous “ecologies” signals a far more expansive sense in which writing about space might equate to writing about life—the contention being that it does, with particular acuity and intensity, in the work of the theorists the book encompasses. While the discussion, in chapter 2, of Michel de Certeau, Azouz Begag, and “Anthropological Spaces” seems to follow naturally from the consideration of Lefebvre, chapter 3—“Jean Baudrillard: Media Places”—resonates rather less obviously with Conley’s overarching purpose.
Although Baudrillard began his career writing about the luxuriant growth of objects, Conley herself maintains that “Baudrillard never developed the ecological dimension implied in his writings” (61). When Žižek (1994: 1) alludes to Jameson’s reference to the end of the world, he takes it to mean that “nobody seriously considers possible alternatives to capitalism any longer,” indicating a widespread, perverse belief that “liberal capitalism is the ‘real’ that will somehow survive even under conditions of a global ecological catastrophe.” For Baudrillard, our penchant for the virtual means that we are busy producing...