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Henri Lefebvre

(1901—1991)


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(1901–91)

French*Marxistphilosopher and sociologist. Lefebvre published 70 books in his lifetime on an incredibly wide array of topics, and is generally regarded as one of the great theoreticians of the 20th century. Because of his interests in space and everyday life (indeed his name is virtually synonymous with these concepts), he tends to be read more in geography departments than philosophy departments. Unfortunately for Anglophone readers, the English translations of his work reflect this bias.

Lefebvre was born in the rural town of Hegetmau just outside the Pyrenees, France. And though he moved to Paris at an early age to study at the Sorbonne, he retained a strong link with the countryside throughout his life. In the 1920s Lefebvre taught philosophy in Paris and was part of the small group of anti-*Bergson, Marxist thinkers known as the Philosophies group. He joined the Communist Party (PCF) in 1928. In this period he took a keen interest in the work of the Surrealists, and was a familiar of Tristan Tzara and André Breton, but it was a short-lived passion. He soon came to think of Surrealism as an inauthentic mode of critique and broke with it quite acrimoniously.

His career stalled in the late 1920s and early 1930s and he found work as a cab driver and factory hand, a fact he would later claim gave him greater right to speak about existence than existentialists like Sartre who had never done any physical labour. After a bad car accident, he was able to find work as a teacher. Around this time he started reading Hegel and through Hegel discovered Marx. During the German occupation of France, Lefebvre was removed from his teaching post because of his association with the PCF and his book on Nietzsche was seized and burnt. He then went on to join the Resistance, writing anti-Vichy pamphlets and (it is alleged) helping to blow up German trains. Following the war he worked as an artistic director for a radio station in Toulouse.

The first instalment of what would become a trilogy of works on everyday life, Critique de la vie quotidienne was published in 1947, the second and third instalments appearing in 1962 and 1981 respectively. Translation into English (as Critique of Everyday Life) followed a decade later. Lefebvre takes the view in these works that a radical politics interested in change must commence with a thoroughgoing knowledge of the day-to-day routines and rituals of everyday people. This for Lefebvre is the true meaning of critique, which he designated as ‘revolutionary’ in opposition to what he saw as the useless ‘poetic’ critiques of the Surrealists. The critique of everyday life initiated by Lefebvre had two strategic goals: on the one hand he wanted to convince fellow Marxists of the utility of the concept of alienation for the analysis of superstructure; on the other hand he wanted to convince philosophers of the importance of the mundane.

These strategic aims would also underpin what is undoubtedly Lefebvre's most influential work: La Production de l'espace (1974), translated as The Production of Space (1991). Importantly, Lefebvre's work on space is, as was his work on everyday life, concerned with ‘moments’, that is to say, he doesn't forsake time in favour of space, but rather tries to see how one can think these two dimensions together to produce a critical account of contemporary life. His final book, Éléments de rythmanalyse: Introduction à la connaissance de rythmes (1992), translated as Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life (2004), would make this connection more concrete and offer an explicit methodology for its analysis. But having said that, Lefebvre also showed that space and time, in their abstract form, were not by themselves sufficient to articulate space fully. So he developed a range of supplementary dimensions to enable history, movement, and change to be incorporated into our understanding of space.

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Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies.


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