Thinkers have long analyzed things in space, but it is time to analyze space itself and "the social relationships embedded in it" according to Lefebvre. He wants to analyze the form, structure, and function of something he calls "social space" and explore how such spaces have been produced.
"Social space" partly consists of a certain configuration of actual space in actual time. Space also encompasses and includes physical objects that participate in discourse (as Foucault would say). Thus, space is also a container of relationships. It is also the receptacle of history, "the outcome of past actions." Lefebvre uses the example of a mountain. It does not have to have been produced or even physically altered by human hands to be considered a social space. Lefebvre's mountain participates in many relationships. The mountain space participates in a dialectic with humans, other spaces (social, representational, and represented), and history (it is produced in history and plays a role in history). It is at once a locus, a node on a network, a path, and place of potentials (i.e. of possible material exchange). "Its `reality' [is] at once formal and material." In short, the mountain cannot be reduced to a simple object, writes Lefebvre.
Space is powerful. Space, according to him, is anything but the "passive locus of social relations." It has an "active-operational or instrumental role," it is "knowledge and action." It instructs. It is also nothing less than a new mode of production. It contributes to "the establishment...of a system" and those in power (the bourgeois, most recently) frequently have made use of it. Space produces society, writes Lefebvre. He writes, "a decisive part is played by space in this continuity [of the reproduction of society]."
At the same time space produces society, space is produced. What Lefebvre sets out to do is identify "the actual production of space," to bring the different kinds of space and the modes of their production into a theory. Space is not "produced in the sense that a kilogram of sugar or a yard of cloth is produced." Nor is it produced like an aspect of superstructure. Social space is produced by (and produces) power to serve its goals.
Lefebvre laments that, in the work of philosophers, there has been an "abyss" between mental ("ideal") space and real space, between the internal "sphere", the realm of mental categories, and the external, physical, social. Lefebvre rejects the res cogitans/res existensa duality of Descartes, and separating mental space from real space strongly reinforces this. Lefebvre's belief that real minds in real bodies inhabit real space-at the same time spaces participate in the mental realm-is the most basic reason The Production of Space is useful for environmental historians. His ideas hint at new opportunities to bridge the culture/matter gap.
Lefebvre also believes that physical environments have histories and humans are a part of them. "In short, every social space has a history, one invariably grounded in nature, in natural conditions that are at once primordial and unique in the sense that they are always and everywhere endowed with specific characteristics (site, climate, etc.)." He even sounds like an environmental historian at times. "The departure point for this history of space is not to be found in geographical descriptions of natural space, but rather in the study of natural rhythms, and of the modification of those rhythms and their inscription in space by means of human actions, especially work-related actions. It begins, then, with the spatio-temporal rhythms of nature as transformed by a social practice."
Criticisms: Lefebvre frequently returns to a critique of the space produced by capitalism, a powerful (abstract) space that spans the globe and has left few pockets free from it. The space produced by something like capitalism is extremely powerful because one can not choose but be obedient to it; to live in it is "lived obedience." That is, to follow its dictates, move about in it in an orderly fashion, to be directed in some paths, prohibited from others, is to follow its instruction. This space is totally concerned with reproducing (bourgeois-serving) social relationships at the cost of "[creative] works, ...natural reproduction, over nature itself, and over natural time."
His point is well taken, but I think these frequently tangential moments detract from his exposition of a new analytical tool. I get tired of hearing that the point of this analysis is to uncover the social relationships latent in spaces for the ostensible purpose of inspiring revolution. I'd rather he left such an analysis to a historian employing Lefebvre's idea rather than having Lefebvre try to make his exposition of a theoretical tool double as a manifesto. (I am also really weary of his defending himself against hardcore Marxists-his concentration is greatly lessened for the effort. I understand that he is fighting personal battles with his old friends at these moments.)