Academic journal article Ethnologies

Henri Lefebvre, Space and Folklore

Academic journal article Ethnologies

Henri Lefebvre, Space and Folklore

Article excerpt

Every now and again our scholarly notions are put to a real test in the context of our day-to-day lives, forcing us to ground our comfortable academic abstractions in the complex hurly-burly of our own daily existence. This happened to me recently when I took possession of a small, 50 acre farm in rural British Columbia. Originally conceived as a place for quiet, contemplative writing and an opportunity to come closer to the wildness of the region, this piece of land soon began poking and prodding me with a series of challenges that have had tremendous impact upon my views of social tradition and, in a very broad sense, my understandings of folklore. As I scurried about trying to address these challenges, scouring library shelves and chatting with colleagues and neighbours, I came face-to-face with the importance of space. I began to recognize that this place in the south-east corner of BC, with its strange buildings in unexpected places, its fences totally independent of surveyed property lines, its piles of what seemed to be garbage all over the place, its seemingly random trenches and pathways, its unfamiliar codes of staining and whitewashing buildings, and its many other mysteries, demanded a much more complicated and sophisticated view of space than I'd held earlier. Indeed, the farm emerged as a conundrum, forcing me to actively reconsider my conception of space.

For me, a breakthrough came when I encountered the thinking of Henri Lefebvre. Here I found a series of ideas that began to clarify space and that took me beyond my previously limited and foreclosing ideas. His vision of space opened up a number of avenues of thought that provided new insights and ideas about this strange-seeming place in the East Kootenays of British Columbia. I began to see space as a complex, multifaceted and intermixed series of different domains in which the relational and dialogic have precedence over the static and realist notions I'd held earlier. Indeed, space came to life in Lefebvre's ideas.

Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991)

Lefebvre is considered by many to be the patron saint of the study of space.(1) His rescue of space from the scholarly, Cartesian shadows which it occupied in much of Western intellectual thought is celebrated as a landmark achievement by many scholars in geography, urban studios, architecture, and other "spatial" disciplines. But, the more I read him the more I recognized that there is a sense in which his insights transcend the disciplinary affiliations that deal explicitly with the spatial, to the point that his thinking is highly relevant to a wide range of scholarly projects. Indeed, it seems clear that Lefebvre's work has deep and significant implications for scholars, like folklorists, whose work foregrounds the notion of "culture.(2)"

The more I worked though Lefebvre's seminal book, La production d'espace(3), the more I began to appreciate the complexities of how the realist's version of space as "out there" and independent of our involvement in it (his first space), and the manner in which we talk about and represent this complex topic (his second space), served to create difficulties. The most critical of these was how the realism underlying first space and the primacy of second space in our culture occluded important concerns, making it almost impossible to voice a full idea of space within our academic traditions. It soon became clear that Lefebvre's third space, a dialogical field linking people and their worlds, fell between the cracks of most academic treatises rendering his vibrant understanding of space almost ungraspable.

These concerns were amplified the more I tried to write about these occlusions. I found the writing traditions we use unreflexively in the academy were not up to the task of fully articulating Lefebvre's complex and complicated third space. These traditions, by virtue of being located in the second space of representation create a strait jacket for the writer, making it exceedingly difficult to articulate the subtleties of the dialogical and relational field that forms the core of Levebvre's ideas. …

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