Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Neil Smith, The Production of Space

Some thoughts on Neil Smith and Marxist geography.

When I first read Marx, in my pre-geographical career, the concept of space was not necessarily something that figured in my analysis or general thoughts. As time progressed though, the idea of interrogating geographical space, in my own abstracted sense, seemed to me a particularly Marxian enterprise, articulating an embedded critique that really hinged on location and context. I had read no Key texts in human geography at this point, and thus was totally ignorant of the quantitative revolution or the history of geography in empire-creation, but instead found something of Marx’s material critique in a thorough analysis of space (or place, or location, or context, or whatever I referred to it at the time). Ultimately, I began to think of critical geographies as having something to do with Marx’s oft-paraphrased notion of productive subjects existing in a world not of their own choosing. Materiality and production began to feel distinctly geographic to me, because after all, something is being produced somewhere. How better to engage with the material, human level then through where people work and live? I then didn’t really think about Marx for a few years.

While frustratingly structural and dense, Marxist geographers re-piqued my interest in this critique, and arguments put forth by them are ultimately fascinating to me. David Harvey’s theorizing of the built landscape of capital and the infrastructure of capital accumulation presents an almost exhilarating look at the intersection of history and economics, and other Marxist geographers tread the line between being engaging and frustrating in their mechanical thought processes. Smith is a great example, of someone who, ultimate argument aside, wrestles with the nuances of Marxist dialectics and contradictions in order to produce a look at the conflicting nature of capitalist space.

His argument, dense and difficult, seems to base itself on the idea that “By its actions, this society no longer accepts space as a container, but produces it; we do not live, act and work ‘in’ space so much as by living, acting and working we produce space” (85). Smith laboriously details the historical abstraction of space, from Einsteinian and Newtonian abstracted math, and actual historical movements like nation-state creation and the emergence of abstracted labor. What is interesting to me is the base of his argument, the idea of space as produced by us through a complex interweaving of production, exchange, and global economics. I first encountered the idea of place/space as a structuring agent in Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis, in which post-war Detroit’s massive segregation is seen as a response to racism and the condition for its furthering. Smith is arguing for something deeper in which the binaries of space and society are dissolved through an understanding that there is no such thing as place without society, just as there is no such thing as nature without our own articulation of it as a concept. It is an engaging and interesting argument, and while I found this article fairly hard to get through, there is nonetheless a conception of space that is interesting and challenging.

From a disciplinary point of view, it can also be interesting to look at Smith in the historical progression of the discipline, as he even situates himself as the result of the Humanist (Yi-Fu Tuan, Edward Relph) and radical political (Harvey) critiques. His critique presumably then comes up against the post-structuralists like Barnes and O Tuathail. UW, for instance, has no Marxist geographers, so I’m curious if the tide has turned against thinkers like Smith and Harvey. I’m also curious about the connection between (mass) communication and the production of space, but that is its own discussion.

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