Soja’s Postmodern Geographies

Soja, Edward W. 1989. Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory. London: Verso. [Ch 1-3]

I learned a lot from this book. Reading about Marxism and geography feels a bit like peering into a family album. Ed Soja’s central argument in these first three chapters is that stubborn historicism has led to the detrimental neglect (and void) of spatiality in social theory, roughly since between the downfall of the Paris Commune (if not post-1848) and the 1960s.

Before and after these dates spatiality formed a much more integral part of social theory. Soja’s goal is to examine “the reassertion of a critical spatial perspective in contemporary social theory and analysis” (1). The justification for the project is that “it may be space more than time that hides consequences from us, the ‘making of geography’ more than the ‘making of history’ that provides the most revealing tactical and theoretical world” (1). It’s an outstanding social-intellectual history of the spatial in critical social theory.

The book is undergirded by a sweeping supposition about the centrality of space, time, and social being as the (dialectical) inescapable existential stuff of reality; in other words, geography, history, society. I remember this claim from his more recent book on Third Space. Soja is desperate to develop a spatial consciousness among intellectual work and daily practice, noting: “We must be insistently aware of how space can be made to hide consequences from us, how relations of power and discipline are inscribed into the apparently innocent spatiality of social life, how human geographies become filled with politics and ideology” (6). This does not mean abandoning historicism—even less humanism—but rather putting them in dialectical tension with spatiality. Soja could be said to be spatializing Santayana’s more historicist aphorism: Those who cannot come to grips with geography are condemned to perpetuate it. The hegemony of historicism in critical social theory is a prime culprit of not critically analyzing the instrumentality of space and spatial relationships, according to Soja. The quantitative revolution in geography in the 1950s was the epitome of this uncritical approach to space, in which geography as a discipline became solely about cataloguing and recording spatial outcomes based on other outcomes; “one damn space after another,” one could say.

He comes to very similar conclusions as I had arrived at regarding Lefebvre and the mystification of space, its fetishization. Interestingly, fetishism is precisely what orthodox Marxists accused geographers of doing in trying to bring a properly geographical understanding to Marx’s ideas about capitalism. Soja accredits the historicism of orthodox Marxism with having snuffed out its revolutionary analyses. He credits Foucault and John Berger with being some of the more forceful correctives of this tradition; though, I think his characterization of space in Foucault is somewhat overwrought.

What a shattering assertion for those who see only through the spectacles of time. Arising from the recognition of a profound restructuring of contemporary life and an explicit consciousness of geographically (and not just historically) uneven development is an extraordinary call for a new critical perspective, a different way of seeing the world in which human geography not only ‘matters’ but provides the most revealing critical perspective. (23)

Chapter Two on Marxist Geography and Critical Social Theory deals more directly with Lefebvre and others, including Neil Smith and David Harvey. Soja shows quite admirably how geography and Marxism joined together in a rather fortunate combination, beginning with urban studies and international political economy. As Soja puts it: “The created spatiality of social life had to be seen as simultaneously contingent and conditioning, as both an outcome and a medium for the making of history – in other words, as part of a historical and geographical materialism rather than just a historical materialism applied to geographical questions” (58).

Some Marxists began stirring debate about the “correct” relation between society and space: was spaced produced as an after-effect of capitalism or vice-versa? Was space a reflection, a mirror, a stage of capitalist social relations? Etc. People like Harvey, Smith, and Dick Walker were reticent to assign space-society a dialectical relation; interestingly, Soja credits the publication of the English translation of the Grundrisse as helping bring these Marxist on board toward the socio-spatial dialectic (Marx’s method… production is consumption… “and all the rest of it…”). And space makes a real difference in social theorizing. As Harvey is quoted in the book: “The insertion of concepts of space and space relations, of place, locale, and milieu, into any of the various supposedly powerful but spaceless social theoretical formulations has the awkward habit of paralyzing that theory’s central propositions” (65).

This about sums up the points I wanted to make about the chapters, but it did leave me with some deep questions about “space” as such or “space per se” (as Soja puts it). I know Soja wants to offer an ontology of spatiality (along time and sociality), but I also know this is what others have criticized him for as a gross misreading of Lefebvre. It seems that the notion of social space as a concrete-abstraction (like the commodity) blows apart any crude settlement of the matter. Perhaps this notion of concrete-abstraction (as an epistemological tool) helps get us away from having to declare and police the boundary between the real and the constructed, knowing that both are material/ideological forces. Some argue this is precisely why space should not be a category of analysis—of course, if that’s your take, then a whole host of “things” would be an analytical waste of time. Still, this status of space is still unclear to me.

I know that Neil Brenner and Stuart Elden call Lefebvre’s argument “highly constructivists”; though I’m in agreement, I don’t think their side comment (admittedly, it’s all it was) does justice to the complexity of space as a concrete-abstraction. How does this force us to think about ontology and epistemology differently? I think I’ll go back to that Lefebvre collection on everyday life by Goonewardena et al.

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