A Little Lefebvre – On the street…

A little bit of theory Urban Rev

I’m still pretty swamped with work and unable to write proper blog posts as I’d like to.  So I’m cheating here and just going to type up an excerpt from a book that I’m reading at the moment – Henri Lefebvre’s The Urban Revolution.

The recent discussion concerning the introduction of Carnival in Bermuda reminded me of this passage – I’d be curious what (if any) people’s thoughts on it are. 

The following comes from the concluding pages of the books first chapter ‘From the city to the urban society’.  I have elected to retain the format as it exists in my book.

For the street

The street is more than just a place for movement and circulation.  The invasion of the automobile and the pressure of the automobile lobby have turned the car into a key object, parking into an obsession, traffic into a priority, harmful to urban and social life.  The day is approaching when we will be forced to limit the rights and powers of the automobile.  Naturally, this won’t be easy, and the fall-out will be considerable.  What about the street, however?  It serves as a meeting place (topos), for without it no other designated encounters are possible (cafes, theaters, halls).  These places animate the street and are served by its animation, or they cease to exist.  In the street, a form of spontaneous theater, I become spectacle and spectator, and sometimes an actor.  The street is where movement takes place, the interaction without which urban life would not exist, leaving only separation, a forced and fixed segregation.  And there are consequences to eliminating the street (ever since Le Corbusier and his nouveaux ensembles): the extinction of life, the reduction of the city to a dormitory, the aberrant functionalisation of existence.  The street contains functions that were overlooked by Le Corbusier: the informative function, the symbolic function, the ludic function.  The street is a place to play and learn.  The street is disorder.  All the elements of urban life, which are fixed and redundant elsewhere, are free to fill the streets and through the streets flow to the centers, where they meet and interact, torn fomr their fixed abode.  This disorder is alive.  It informs.  It surprises.  The work of Jane Jacobs has shown that, in the United States, the street (highly trafficked, busy) provides the only security possible against criminal violence (theft, rape, aggression).  Wherever the streets disappeared, criminality increased, became organised.  In the street and through the space it offered, a group (the city itself)  took shape, appeared, appropriated places, realised an appropriated space-time.  This appropriation demonstrates that use and use value can dominate exchange and exchange value.

Revolutionary events generally take place in the street.  Doesn’t this show that the disorder of the street engenders another kind of order?  The urban space of the street is a place for talk, given over as much as to the exchange of words and signs as it is to the exchange of things.  A place where speech becomes writing.  A place where speech can become ‘savage’ and, by escaping rules and institutions, inscribe itself on walls.

Against the street

A meeting place? Maybe, but such meetings are superficial.  In the street, we merely brush shoulders with others, we don’t interact with them. It’s the ‘we’ that is important.  The street prevents the constitution of a group, a subject; it is populated by a congeries of people in search of … what exactly?  The world of merchandise is deployed in the street. The merchandise that didn’t make it into specialised locales or markets (marketplaces, halls) has invaded the city. In antiquity the streets were merely extensions of places with specialised functions: the temple, the stadium, the agora, the garden. During the Middle Ages, artisans occupied the streets. The artisan was both producer and seller. The artisans were followed by merchants, who, although only merchants, soon became masters. The street became a display, a corridor flanked by stores of various kinds. Merchandise became spectacle (provocative, attractive) and transformed the individual into a spectacle for others. Here, more than elsewhere, exchange and exchange value take precedence over use, reducing it to a residue.  Therefore, the critique of the street must be more incisive: the street becomes the focus of a form of repression that was made possible by the ‘real’ – that is, weak, alienated, and alienating – character of the relationships that are formed there.  Movement in the street, a communications space, is both obligatory and repressed.  Whenever threatened, the first thing power restricts is the ability to linger or assemble in the street. Although the street may have once had the meaning of a meeting place, it has since lost it, and could only have lost it, by reducing itself, through a process of necessary reduction, to nothing more than a passageway, by splitting itself into a place for the passage of pedestrians (hunted) and automobiles (privileged). The street became a network organised for and by consumption. The rate of pedestrian circulation, although still tolerated, was determined and measured by the ability to perceive store windows and buy the objects displayed in them. Time became ‘merchandise time’ (time for buying and selling, time bought and sold). The street regulated time outside of work; it subjected it to the same system, the system of yield and profit. It was nothing more than the necessary transition between forced labour, programmed leisure, and habitation as a place of consumption.

In the street, the neocapitalist organisation of consumption is demonstrated by its power, which is not restricted to political power or repression (overt or covert). The street, a series of displays, an exhibition of objects for sale, illustrates just how the logic of merchandise is accompanied by a form of (passive) contemplation that assumes the appearance and significance of an aesthetics and an ethics. The accumulation of objects accompanies the growth of population and capital; it is transformed into an ideology, which, dissimulated beneath the traits of the legible and visible, comes to seem self-evident. In this sense we can speak of a colonisation of the urban space, which takes place in the street through the image, through publicity, through the spectacle of objects – a ‘system of objects’ that has become symbol and spectacle. Through the uniformisation of the grid, visible in the modernisation of old streets, objects (merchandise) take on the effects of colour and form that make them attractive. The parades, masquerades, balls, and folklore festivals authorised by a power structure caricaturise the appropriation of space. The true appropriation characteristic of effective ‘demonstrations’ is challenged by the forces of repression, which demand silence and forgetfulness


If you have an opportunity to read the book in it’s entirety, I wholly encourage it – although I warn you that, at least to me, the writing style can be a bit different than what one might be used to. It does strike me very much as akin to a stream of consciousness writing style, but I do find it pregnant with possibilities.  

And I do feel that the above extract should provoke various thoughts within the Bermudian context (or wherever you might be reading this from).  What do you think?

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