Postmodern Geographies: Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (Haymarket) Paperback – 17 Jul 1989
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""One of the most challenging and stimulating books ever written on the thorny issue of how and why societies use space for social purposes in the way they do."" - David Harvey, Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography, University of Oxford
About the Author
Edward W. Soja teaches Urban and Regional Planning at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of several books on African development, and, more recently, on the economic and spatial restructuring of the Los Angeles region.
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space in critical social theory. Starting with a history of the resistance to the conceptualization
of space in critical theory, Soja explains how geography was often neglected for being
considered to be stilted, empirical, and thoroughly undialectical as opposed to the preferred
focus on time and history. He gives a thorough summary of why space has often been pushed
to the side by the injunction to "always historicize". Showing the extent of this resistance, He
is able to exhibit the originality of Henri Lefebvre's thought in approaching space as well as
tracing the awakening of Michel Foucault to the usefulness that geography would have in his
own investigation of social institutions. We are also shown how other big names in critical
theory have incorporated spatiality into their works. In a motif that continues through the
book, in this historical explanation we begin to see for ourselves how thinking about space
offer new perspectives on understanding how the survival of capitalism depends on the
creation of space. At this point it is at the micro-level of everyday life, what Lefebvre calls
the "bureaucratic society of controlled consumption". The essay offers a wealth of academic
sources for anyone interested in how an individual exists within a space constructed to induce
consumption and quiescence. Anyone raised in the suburbs can find a fair deal that resonates
with this approach to thinking about space.
In following essays, Soja goes on to narrate the various debates that come with
incorporating the concept of spatiality into critical theory. For instance, in the chapter on
the "Socio-spatial Dialectic", we see how difficult it is to conceptualize how exactly social
relations of production produce space. Is the built environment a product of this process, or
merely part of the "superstructure"? How do we understand a struggle over public space, or
rent, using the Marxist form of analysis which is more immediately concerned with the
struggle going on in the workplace? Soja provides some fascinating viewpoints and directs our
attention towards an understanding of why controlling public space is still important in our
contemporary age. Political power is not only interested in controlling what goes on at the
point of production or in the realm of ideology, but indeed aims to create a built environment
conducive to the survival of capitalism. Class struggle, therefore, must include a fight over the
production of space and its "territorial structure of exploitation and domination".
There is a feeble, and seemingly ad hoc, literary structure that the introduction explains as isomorphic of the fragmented spatiality of postmodern geography. I don't buy that explanation. I read the book from beginning to end and did not feel like I was passing through mini-paradigms or multiple perspectives. The first three chapters are exceedingly repetitive and the rest of the book only moderately so; it is perhaps for this reason that the author suggests picking up at any point in the book. Again and again the legacy of traditional academic Marxism is critiqued for ignoring spatiality, yet Soja only asserts the necessity of a fundamental incorporation of space into social theory in a brief portion of the first chapter. What's more, this brief argument is based entirely on the scholarship of other theorists and does not even consider possible objections. As such this book will not, if you are reading it thoroughly, convince you to equally incorporate space and time but only that "everybody else" in geography is doing it.
A summary of recent trends in geography is by no means a poor basis for a book. I was very unfamiliar with (what used to be) contemporary issues in geography, and after reading Soja's work I feel familiar with many theorists as well as the discipline's terminology. Brief aside: Soja absolutely loves academic jargon, so be prepared with a dictionary at hand if you are not a serious academic. But a summary of trends is not what the author makes out his book to be. He calls it a "reassertion of space in critical social theory", yet his rhetorical structure assumes the truth of his position and subsequently presents facts that correlate with this assumed truth. This does not mean that I think the author is wrong about space, simply that he makes a pretty weak assertion.
I learned about a lot of things from this book: Marx's writings and Marxism, Henri Lefibvre, existentialism and its contingence upon the constructed mental space that seperates the individual from the rest of the world, social theorists and geographers in the 70s and 80s that began to incorporate the socio-spatial dialectic into their work, and (unfortunately) that "postmodern" geography is just an equally social, spatial, and chronological form of Marxian analysis. If postmodernism is a rejection of the metanarratives of modernism (as it is in part according to Lyotard) then the type of geography that Soja is describing is not very postmodern. "Postmodern Geographies" questions but ultimately deifies Marx, and in doing so celebrates the inter-era significance of one of the most rigid and deterministic metanaritives.
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