Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life/Understanding Henri Lefebvre: Theory and the Possible
Henri Lefebvre Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life Continuum, London, 2004, 169 pp. ISBN 0-826-47299-0 (pbk) £15.99
Stuart Elden Understanding Henri Lefebvre: Theory and the Possible Continuum, London, 2004, 288 pp. ISBN 0-826-47002-5 (hbk) £60 ISBN 0-826-47003-3 (pbk) £19.99
Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life represents the latest in a steadily growing list of translations of Lefebvre’s writings. While the floodgates have hardly opened, there does now seem to be a steady trickle of newly translated material. The subtitle of this particular book, ‘Space, Time and Everyday Life’, captures the sense in which this short text represents a culmination of Lefebvre’s thinking on these themes-themes that have remained unconnected in many accounts of Lefebvre’s work, whether wilfully or otherwise.This is especially evident in those accounts that see only space in Lefebvre’s writings. Time is bought centre-stage here by Lefebvre, and also in Stuart Elden’s introduction and notes, which contextualise Lefebvre’s text in some detail. Often regarded as the fourth volume in Lefebvre’s long-running Critique of Everyday Life series, Rhythmanalysis takes elements of everyday life and thinks them through using the space-and-time-unifying concept of rhythm. As Elden notes, ‘Lefebvre uses rhythm as a mode of analysis-a tool of analysis rather than just an object of it’ (in Lefebvre, 2004: xiii).
The book brings together a number of writings, including the text of Elements of Rhythmanalysis: An Introduction to the Understanding of Rhythms, which Lefebvre wrote with his last wife Catherine Régulier. The last book Lefebvre wrote, it was published posthumously in 1992 and Elden’s is the first full English translation of it. Rhythmanalysis also contains other pieces that have been published before, but for which Elden provides new translations.
Lefebvre and Régulier’s Elements of Rhythmanalysis is composed of a series of discrete though interlocking short chapters, with titles such as ‘The media day’, ‘Dressage’, ‘ seen from the window’, and ‘Music and rhythms’. Several recurring themes emerge: the difference between repetition and rhythm; the nature of cyclical and linear repetition and rhythm; the focus on the body as the source of multiple ‘natural’ rhythms; and the dialectical play of different rhythms, particularly the tense interplay of rational, industrial, linear time with natural, cyclical variants.
The opening chapters have the familiar vague and elliptical style recognisable in many of Lefebvre’s other writings and, despite the emphasis on the concrete, I found little here to convince me that the ideas were particularly useful. Subsequent chapters do, however, have more concrete empirical content as Lefebvre and Régulier discuss the nature of the media, the training of the body, the rhythms observed from a Parisian apartment window, music, and so on.
Overall, I found this particular text to be less than fully satisfying. I originally read it in French many years ago and, while my French is not great, Elden’s thorough translation, though very welcome, confirmed my feeling that one has to really want to make something of the material presented here. And, at the risk of being charged with heresy, I find the chapter lauded by many commentators, ‘ seen from the window’, to be pedestrian.This may be my failing. However, ‘The rhythmanalytical project’-a short piece originally published in 1985, and also coauthored with Régulier-is a different matter altogether. It is succinct, lucid and pointed. Personally, I would recommend that readers start with this. Its eleven pages of analytic, descriptive and normative clarity provide a welcome contrast to the preceding material.
The appearance of Rhythmanalysis represents one thread of a remarkable achievement on the part of Stuart Elden. Having contributed significantly to 2003’s Key Writings, he has not only translated and contextualised the writings on rhythmanalysis but has also produced a substantial monograph on Lefebvre, Understanding Henri Lefebvre: Theory and the Possible. To my mind, this is the most thorough, complete and rich account of the full range and scope of Henri Lefebvre’s intellectual concerns from the 19205 to his death in 1991. Often unable or unwilling to move beyond Lefebvre’s The Production of Space, previous accounts have tended to read space through and into Lefebvre to the extent that it becomes a lens through which, we have been told, we have to look in order to even begin to understand him. Moreover, the expulsion of time from Lefebvre’s intellectual and political concerns, which previous accounts have licensed, is here thoroughly dismantled by Elden, who magnificently returns time to Lefebvre.This is no counter-reading, however, although it challenges much Orthodoxy’ on Lefebvre. Rather, it is based on the reading of a vast range of both primary and secondary texts in French and German. This has resulted in an enormous opening out of Lefebvre’s intellectual and political concerns, into a much broader context than previously seen. It does make one wonder about some of the supposedly authoritative previous accounts. For example, it is good to see Elden, an art historian, correctly identifying and engaging with the work of the French painter Edouard Pignon, whom Lefebvre wrote about in the 1950s and admired. Much of Lefebvre’s later thinking on space can be traced to Pignon, although previous accounts of Lefebvre’s work, even the spatially-driven ones, have not really engaged with Pignon. In some explanations he is left out, while in one account, apparently the Only comprehensive guide to Lefebvre’s work’, he is accorded the status of a romantic writer. Elden spots this, and one gets the feeling that such interpretive assumptions find little place in his research.
One legacy of many previous accounts has been the downplaying or expunging of Lefebvre the Marxist. Elden’s account brings Marx back in and onto centre-stage although not, however, in a crude, mechanical or deterministic way. Lefebvre’s Marxism was heteroclite, and was heavily informed via his engagement with other thinkers. Elden’s book conveys a real sense of such confrontations, covering their affinities and differences.
Lefebvre’s development of a regressive-progressive method, the nature of his materialist and objective idealist approach, and his applications of the dialectic are all discussed in the first chapter.
Philosophically Lefebvre is contextualised, in the second chapter, in relation to Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger, and Elden argues that Lefebvre’s engagement with German thought was always more significant and sympathetic than his engagement with the French variety. Indeed, Elden’s own previous scholarship on Heidegger helps to fully explicate and contextualise these intellectual and political encounters. Lefebvre sought to subject the approaches of others to his own radical critique, as part of a process by which an invigorated and expanded Marxism could be augmented and developed through the incorporation of the radical content of others.
Chapter 3 covers Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life, and shows the course of its development over many decades. This is a short chapter because, as Elden explains, there is already much scholarship on this aspect of Lefebvre’s work and, unlike that on Lefebvre and space, it is relatively unproblematic in terms of interpretation and contextualisation within Lefebvre’s oeuvre.
Chapters 4 and 5 show how Lefebvre’s often-referenced ideas on space and the city find their origins in other domains, especially in studies of rural society, music, literature and painting. Chapter 5 also focuses on Lefebvre’s writings on time, history and rhythm, and shows how his particular view of time and history, indebted to both Nietzsche and Heidegger as well as to Marx and Hegel, is central to an understanding of Lefebvre’s critical and normative approach to society and the possibilities for individual and collective transformation.
Finally, chapter 6 engages with Lefebvre’s substantial body of writing on the State, another much-neglected aspect of his work in many accounts. Elden shows how Lefebvre was always rooted both in the early Marx of the Manuscripts, and in the critique of political economy of Capital. Ideas on the global dynamic of capital, the nature of citizenship and the possibilities of self-management are also covered here.
Elden’s thematic approach mostly coincides with a roughly, if not exactly, chronological account; but Elden is at pains to show how particular themes in Lefebvre’s work were revisited and reworked, sometimes over the course of five, six or seven decades.
This raises another interesting point concerning the spaceemphasising scholarship on Lefebvre that, until recently, has dominated approaches to his work. What Elden implies is that, despite the claims that such spatial accounts have been derived from the translated material available, an account that concentrated on Lefebvre’s central concerns of time and history was always possible on the basis of the same material. This was a theme of my own Ph.D. thesis on Lefebvre, begun over a decade ago. The implication is that, rather than straightforward interpretive preferences and emphases driving forward the spatial reading of Lefebvre there was, perhaps, some wilful neglect of material that did not fit those preferences and emphases.
In this very readable account, Elden is not afraid to be critical of Lefebvre, who could be vague, obscure and, I feel, often disingenuous, especially in his use of withering rhetorical flourishes. Elden is alive to such shenanigans, and his account is all the better for it. If I have one small and churlish bugbear it is that, of the 265 pages of Elden’s text, 76 of them are notes, averaging around 270 notes per chapter. While such erudition and depth of research is appreciated, it does make for a lot of nicking back and forth.
Neil Maycroft lives in Nottingham and works in Lincoln. His research interests include material culture, everyday life and Utopia. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright Conference of Socialist Economists Summer 2005
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