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Rethinking the City with Henri Lefebvre

My book examines an utterly complex author whose production ranges an arch of time of more than half a century: I will always insist on the fact that Henri Lefebvre was about eighteen years of age at the outburst of the Russian Revolution and would pass away in 1991, following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Warsaw Pact. His interests comprise of extremely vast and diversified topics and refers to numerous disciplinary domains. Lefebvre was a prolific writer: philosopher, sociologist, promoter and disseminator of culture, pamphlet writer and passionate polemist.

A Critical Reflection beyond the Academic Disciplines

Despite the concrete difficulties that derive from moving inside a corpus of such vastness, this work tries to accomplish an effectual depiction of Lefebvre’s intellectual and political activity that is put into context in the various historical phases in which it was produced. I have strongly committed myself to establish a dialogue between Lefebvre’s writings and the most important authors of his time. Despite the main focus being the spatial question, the emergence of Lefebvre’s interest on the city and the “urban” is shown within its development along an intellectual path that isn’t definitely linear, in which the main references of the French philosopher are theoreticians seemingly distant such as Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and Heidegger. Conversely to the main writings that are available today within the frame of what we could call an actual LefebvreRenaissance of international breath – that stick to taking into consideration only the writings that pertain to space, and that were published by the author from the end of the Sixties and the Eighties –  in this volume Lefebvre’s “spatialist” period is reconsidered in light of his more general intellectual production, considerably widening the horizon of discussion (also by resorting to secondary bibliography in French, that might not be known by the Anglophone readers). This way, we shed new light on aspects of his apparently minor works or not directly connected to his writings on the city. An example that stands out is the polemics with the structuralists, particularly with Louis Althusser, destined not to be limited to the philosophical sphere, but to produce unexpected consequences for a whole season of the reflection on the concept of city in France, which for a long time was split between Althusserian orthodoxy and Lefebvrian fascination, as Manuel Castells’ first writings demonstrate very well.

The democratic question in the city

I considered it might be useful to dedicate my work to the analysis of the writings that immediately precede the famous text on the ‘right to the city’, starting with the earliest rural studies at the core of the anti-fascist Resistance, up to the book Lefebvre wrote in 1965 on the Paris Commune, that would next trigger not only crucial components of his future production, but also offer inspiration to the Sixty-eight Parisian movements. In reassembling the matter of the Commune as original experience of urban self-management and as collective feast destined to end tragically, Lefebvre gives us a glimpse into the ambivalence of the European city and the weight of its tradition, suspended between the claims for radical liberation, direct management of the res publica and the load of the economical-political rule focused on the hierarchization and subordination of the lower layers. Consequently, the return to the philosophical-political foundations of the concept of ‘right to the city’ allows a more precise understanding of the guidelines of Lefebvrian sociological studies and of the actual meaning of the proposal of “spatial justice”. This proposal was born as a critique of the social contradictions of Fordism, but today it is still valid if we look at the neoliberal urban model. In fact, the relevance of this perspective is evident when we compare the Lefebvrian categories with the contemporary debate on the city. Against the so-called ‘French Lefebvre Theory’, with this volume the goal I set is to offer the hypothesis that might be more correct to read Lefebvre’s work as ‘critical theory of space and of the urban’ in continuity with the method of the “kritik” that was proposed by Karl Marx and then resumed by the Frankfurt School. Lefebvre, in fact, fills a void in the critical thought of the second half of the Twentieth Century: he is one of the first theoreticians who understands the great importance the ‘urban question’ acquired regarding the fate of human kind development and of the entire planet.

Finally, the reader may notice the way I strongly emphasize in the Lefebvrian meaning of “right to the city” the connection, on one hand, of the social conflict and the democratic question in the city and, on the other, the idea that the city and urban space should be places that are imagined, designed and built inside the being-with-in-a-shared-world of all of its inhabitants: the city can truly be a work of art produced by human action only and if it is authentically collective work of all men, none excluded. The social conflict deriving from spatial injustice doesn’t solely pertain to the extemporaneous insurgence or rebellion, but is the source of a new revolutionary political proposal that questions the whole economical-political layout of power. The emancipation fight enclosed in the claim for the “right to the city” carries a new civilization, a novel social and economical organization for all men. The so called “urban revolution” doesn’t only comprise the changes operated by the capitalist design, but it pertains, first of all, to the emancipating political action that we’ll all be able to operate in the years to come.

Francesco Biagi is a PhD Researcher in Political and Social Sciences at the University of Pisa, Italy, and collaborates with the research group GESTUAL (Group of Socio-Territorial, Urban and Local Action Studies) at the Faculty of Architecture of Lisbon, Portugal. He is rediscovering Henri Lefebvre’s thought in order to understand the current neoliberal urban questions.

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Henri Lefebvre’s Critical Theory of Space

© SpringerFor a taste of his recent book Henri Lefebvre’s Critical Theory of Space, read Chapter 1, “A Critical Reflection Beyond the Academic Disciplines” for free until 8 Apr 2021

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