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Name: Andrew Wallis.

Subject: MA in American and Canadian Studies.

Course Module: Guided Reading

Tutor: Dr. Liam Kennedy

Essay Title: A Critique of Henri Lefebvre's Spatial Theories in his The Production Of
Space.

Date: 22 January 1996.


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A Critique of Henri Lefebvre's Spatial Theories in his The Production Of Space.

Published in 1974 (though not translated into English until 1991), Henri Lefebvre's influential
text The Production Of Space, can be seen to be the primary piece of writing that reintroduced
spatial theories to the world of academia. Originating from a Western Marxist background,
Lefebvre embellishes his thesis with the disciplines of philosophy and history, continually
evoking the concepts of Marx and Hegel. Although he uses these teachings to good effect when
examining how space is produced in a capitalist society, and through the history of Ancient
Greece and Rome, I shall not be concentrating upon them in this essay. The reason for this
exclusion, is that I feel the acute detail he examines these with, has a tendency to position a veil
over his theories concerning space, diverting the reader from notions of spatiality towards a
Marxist criticism of capitalism. Yet, it is because of his political persuasion that he is able to
explicitly witness the production of capitalist space, and its inherent complexities and
contradictions.

Instead of looking at the history and philosophy of space, I shall attempt an analysis and
critique of Lefebvre's key concepts and thoughts (though many of his proposals are difficult to
argue against). This shall be done by looking at his discussions that move from absolute space
to abstract space, from contradictory space to the commodification of this space, an
explanation of how produced space is simultaneously homogenous and fragmented, and
concluding with a truth, or science of space. This should highlight some of Lefebvre's complex
(sometimes confusing) ideas on why there is a need to analyse the production of mental, social,
and physical space to reach a 'truth of space'.

Early on in his work, Lefebvre asserts that 'social space is a social product' 1. If one is to make
sense of this statement , one is required to examine what that production process is. Lefebvre
sees this process as being one conducted over time, that institutional or state powers 'produce' a
space, a space that was once deemed to be 'empty'. It is through this time consuming operation
that the dominant power is able to assert its hierarchical position and autonomy over this space,
yet will 'fail to master it completely' 2. This is all very well and straight forward, yet this space,
as an instrument of power, has the effect of producing and reproducing social spaces in a
variety of complex ways.

Within the production of a social space, dialectical relationships emerge that cause the
statement 'social space is a social product' to be not only too simplistic, but also problematic.
Lefebvre observes a dialectic emerging in this situation, that being the relationship between
1
Lefebvre, Henri - The Production Of Space (Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1994), p.26.
2
Ibid. p.26.
3

'social relations of reproduction' (this basically being the family sect), and 'the relations of
production' 3
(the division of labour and its related class system). These two interlocking
relations form a dialectic, where each determines and influences the other, helping to produce a
social space. Yet, when this dialectic is positioned within a 'neo-capitalist' framework, Lefebvre
argues that this duality is insufficient. What is required, he says, is 'a conceptual triad' 4 with
which to work from..

A problem when looking at the production of space, is that it contains many contradictions that
are inseparable from one another. The 'conceptual triad' that Lefebvre introduces forms the
basis for ways to examine this production; as David Harvey comments, it demonstrates 'a
dramatic tension through which the history of spatial practices can be read' 5. This triad that
runs through Lefebvre's essay (although continually changing form), consists of spatial
practice, representations of space, and representational space. Spatial practice incorporates not
only the manner society produces space, but also the way space produces society, thus
supporting the statement mentioned above. To illustrate this, Lefebvre uses the networks of
roads. This 'urban reality' 6
is given a space produced by society to maintain order and
cohesiveness. Yet it is also a space that is able to determine the power the hegemonic order has
over society, and is able to produce 'daily reality' 7. It is a dialectical relationship that will be
shown later to have many contradictions; it is, however, suffice to say at this junction that it is
the space of the experienced.

The crux of the triad emerges when looking at its two other aspects. Lefebvre sees a
representation of space as being a conceptualised space, a space that relates its production 'to
knowledge, to signs, to codes' 8. A space needs to be given codes of language or semiotics to
obtain a spatial perception: what Lefebvre views as being essential for a conception of the
production of space. Correspondingly, this space is also imaginary and lived, which takes the
form of representational space. These spaces are, according to Harvey, 'mental inventions...that
imagine new meanings or possibilities for spatial practices' 9, whilst also performing an active
role in the lived performance of that space.
It is this performance of the lived experience that can (though not always) produce a space, or
spaces, via the imaginary, or via the use of a pre-existing space. The relationship between
representations of space and representational space is a confusing one, for when looking at the
history of space from a contemporary spatial perspective, one already is possessed with the
knowledge (connaissance) with which to understand and recognise it. A conceptualised and/or
3
Lefebvre, Henri - The Production Of Space (Blackwell Publisher, Oxford, 1994), p.32.
4
Ibid. p.33.
5
Harvey, David - The Condition Of Postmodernity (Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1990), p.219.
6
Lefebvre, Henri - The Production Of Space (Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1994), p.38.
7
Ibid. p.38.
8
Ibid. p.33.
9
Harvey, David - The Condition Of Postmodernity (Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1990), p.218-19.
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imagined space of history is already represented in the present, and thus cannot be perceived
but only represented through analysis and hindsight. Yet, Lefebvre argues that the relationship
between these two representations can be understood if one views the producers of space (the
architect, the government) as working with representations of space, for they conceive it, whilst
the 'users', hence society, 'experience whatever was imposed upon them' 10
, and work with
representational space. It is a complex triad, especially when positioned in relation to the
different perspectives of social space, and from the position of one who already acknowledges
that these spaces are present and already produced. It does however, provide one with the
terminology and framework with which to fully illustrate the contradictions of spatial
production.

Having recognised this triad, of the ways space can be seen to be produced, one can move
towards a deeper analysis of the way society experienced a shift from absolute space - a
'natural' space like rivers and fields that possessed codes to represent its significance; towards
an abstract social space. This is the space where political powers and forces have restructured
or reproduced this 'natural' space to work in terms of the construction of the social labour
force, something that Lefebvre sees as often being demonstrated through violence. He discusses
this abstract social space in much depth with regards to the class system, the emergence of a
new capitalist space, the way language becomes knowledge, and the manner artists performed
its representational space. Lefebvre is at his strength though, when he reveals the dichotomies
and dialectics represented within this social space, and it is these that need attention.

Social space is produced in a variety of ways, all of which relate to each other. I shall attempt
(some may say crudely) to briefly encapsulate the principle dialectics Lefebvre proposes, for
this shall hopefully make things clearer later on. The relationship between use value and
exchange value has been heavily documented in terms of the economic, yet in social space it
takes on a variety of disguises. The use value of space can be seen to be the manner space is
produced in terms of labour output, the value it holds for individuals, and its 'natural'
resources. These clearly have a relationship with the exchange value, for Lefebvre sees these
spaces as becoming commodities in a capitalist society, obtaining a language allowing it to
have a content, and thus value. In the market place, this space is produced 'via money, and via
labour' 11, having an economic, as well as political and social value placed upon it. Its use value
has determined its exchange value, which conversely determines its use. This dialectic takes its
form in the relationship of 'individual versus social, divided versus global', and cannot be seen
as homogenous or fixed, for it is continually volatile to the production and reproduction of that
social space.

10
Lefebvre, Henri - The Production Of Space (Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1994), p.43.
11
Lefebvre, Henri - The Production Of Space (Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1994), p.100.
5

Another dialectic Lefebvre sees as occurring in social space is between the demand and
command of space. This, he argues, is 'a historical problem' 12, for the production of space
needs to have obtained a knowledge of this relationship. The hegemonic powers that command
the production of a space have to pay attention to its demand, and to the distinction between
material (stone and wood) and materiel (hammers and drills), for these apparently dictate
whether or not that space will survive its production. However, within this dialectic others
emerge, such as between the centre and the periphery (who demands and commands the centre
for example), and between dominated and appropriated space. What can be deduced here, is
that the analysis of a produced space is by no means simple. One cannot say that social space
is determined merely by use value and exchange value, for this would be too narrow, and would
exclude what influences that dialectic and so on. However, these dialectical relationships are
vital to the analysis, yet what is also needed for this social space to become productive and
reproductive, is a language.

Lefebvre sees space obtaining markings and signs, not as a necessity, but as a command of
power. These signs can be explicit, as in erected boundaries, or can be ideological in terms of
do's and don'ts. Signs dictate within social space what to do, where to go, and how to behave,
for they are embedded in the notion of power. Lefebvre views this to be a positive aspect, in
that signs are able to produce socio-spatial mobility and interaction; yet he also sees problems
in giving space a language, arguing that spaces are not receptable to readability. By this he
means that 'the reading of space...comes last in the genesis of space itself' 13. It is only when
space is produced and is the producer that it is able to have a language of semiotics placed
upon it; for, as I see it, a reading of social space depends upon the production of that space
before any analysis of the dialectics mentioned above can be made.

It seems that Lefebvre argues for and against this reading of space, because his concern at this
stage, is with how space is produced, when it does not have a strict code or language of power.
Ironically, what he is doing is giving this production a language, and thus seems to be
contradicting himself. It is difficult to disagree with Lefebvre's discussion of the semiotics of
space, for a produced space needs to be read in order to grasp a knowledge of its operations
and control of society, the society of everyday life. It would be interesting however, if one could
position Lefebvre's ideas alongside Fredric Jameson's discussion of the Bonaventure Hotel, in
which he finds it almost impossible to assign that space a language because of it repetition and
distortion of traditional spatial conceptions.

Now that a language has been established regarding the production of space, one needs to
return to another dialectic proposed by Lefebvre. This is the concept of space being both
12
Ibid. p.116.
13
Lefebvre, Henri - The Production Of Space (Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1994), p.143.
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dominated and appropriated. He argues that space is dominated via the available technology
transforming it, and 'in the modern world, instances of such spaces are legion' 14. It can be seen
that possibly the majority of spaces in the modern western world are dominated, for one only
needs to look at the vertical buildings of New York to see how that urban space is positively
and negatively dominated. But for this space of New York to obtain its full meaning it needs to
be appropriated. The domineering vertical space of New York becomes appropriated when it
enters everyday life, or the social sphere; for it is at this stage that certain social groups or
institutions give it meaning or codes of power. The Empire State building not only dominates
the space it occupies, but it has obtained its full significance of representing wealth, power, and
advancement by being appropriated 15. Lefebvre posits a basic example of this dialectic as
being the distinction between the space of the public and that of the private. Public spaces such
as roads or parks, he suggests, are often established and dominated by the hegemonic social
order, whilst also performing a role in the dialectics previously mentioned, such as use and
exchange value. The domination of these spaces is insufficient until they are appropriated by
society. The private space of homes is an example Lefebvre shows as being appropriated.
Without inhabitants, homes are merely dominated, they become appropriated when human
subjects occupy that space. This may be seen as a weak example, for it does not distinguish the
differences clearly. Yet it seems, that this is exactly Lefebvre's objective, for it reverts back to
the notion that without a language there could be no concept of the dialectic of domination and
appropriation, one would be unable to analyse how that space is produced within the social,
and it is from this language that one can examine the differences.

What I have been discussing so far is Lefebvre's opinions on social space as absolute space,
where one needs to understand its semiology, and must recognise that this space cannot be
confined to dualities, for it encompasses many different relationships and representations.
Lefebvre argues that a transformation occured in this absolute space, 'a highly activated space'1
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, when it became dominated and appropriated during the middle ages forming the space of
commercial towns, instead of referring to religious or political sites (as was the case of the
absolute space in Ancient Greece). This new space of commodities and accumulation fully
emerged during the sixteenth century, with the advent of the town (the centre) becoming more
powerful in the political economy than the traditional source of wealth, that being the
agricultural countryside (the periphery). Lefebvre suggests that what occurred during this time,
was that the urban centre, the town, emerged as a social space having the political and
economic power with which to distribute commodities produced on the periphery, to whatever
space that power desired. This capitalist space of the town developed to occupy even greater

14
Ibid. p.164.
15
An example of this could be the classic movie King Kong, in which the Empire State building has been
appropriated by the movie to represent success and wealth dominating the United States.
16
Lefebvre, Henri - The Production Of Space (Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1994), p.236.
7

space over the years. Lefebvre sees this as emerging through its representational, produced, and
productive violence, bound up with the economic, becoming, what he terms, abstract space.

This established abstract space emerged from the dominating political force of violence, a force
that attempted to eliminate difference to produce a space that at 'first...appears homogenous' 17.
Lefebvre observes problems when examining this supposedly stable and comprehensible spatial
abstraction, and proposes that there is another triad in operation in this space. This triad of
abstract space consists of, what he terms, 'formants': the geometric formant, the optical
formant, and the phallic formant; two of which help to position what I have been discussing in
a clearer light.

The geometric formant is a representation of space that appears to be homogenous when


operating in the social realm, yet reduces 'the 'real'...to a 'plan' existing in a void' 18, or rather it
reduces space to a state where it has the illusion of representing homogeneity. This is similar to
what is at work in the optical formant. According to Lefebvre, this aspect is a situation where
the visualisation of the spectacle and of the written word 'become essential' 19. The visual is
apparently dominant in this abstract space, in that what is seen, or what signs are seen, prevail
over the other bodily senses (what better example of this than the space of the cinema or the
television?). This visualisation correspondingly produces social space as being a 'purely visual
space', whereby what 'is merely seen is reduced to an image' 20. The final formant Lefebvre
proposes is that of the phallic. This, to me, contains little relevance when looking at urban
space, and thus appears to be fairly nonsensical. Lefebvre associates the dominance a political
power has over this abstract space, that being its tool of violence, as having phallic importance
over spatial practice. This pseudo-psychological approach Lefebvre occasionally falls into
during his essay, is in my opinion the weakness of his theories, for it positions space out of its
social urban structure, into the (relevant, but not here) world of Freud and Jung.

Despite my disagreement with Lefebvre's phallic formant, it can be seen that these three
formants do constitute an abstract space; a space whose use value is one of political aims and
objectives, and whose exchange value is that of a commodity. It is also a space that is reflective
of the power sought by the establishment. How this is done will be illustrated shortly, yet at the
moment this model does not inform us much about the practice of everyday life operating
within this space. Lefebvre argues that one needs to go beyond this reflective power of abstract
space, to be able to witness abstract space's contents, its signs, and its lived space.

17
Ibid. p.285.
18
Ibid. p.287.
19
Ibid. p.286.
20
Ibid. p.286.
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If this model of abstract space is seen to be one of homogeneity - because its surface images act
as a spatial veil through which the violence of politics is produced and sought; Lefebvre asserts
that it is simultaneously fragmented. This fragmentation occurs because the space disguises its
violence of the political and the social, a disguise that Lefebvre views as being intrinsic to
capitalism (why not socialism?), causing the illusion that this abstract space is organised and
structured. This fragmentation is created by the division capital causes between individuals
within a divided society, via its uneven distribution. This is all very well, but Lefebvre fails to
acknowledge that abstract space is not autonomous in creating this, nor is capital, but that a
variety of determinants influence this fragmentation. He positions the fragmentary nature of
abstract space as being negative, and does not appear to realise that this is a socio-cultural
phenomenon, one that is often desired by the social being to offer greater freedom of choice,
and freedom of spatial mobility. Lefebvre seems to have taken this spatiality out of its social
context, and sees it as being produced essentially by the violence of the elite classes, not by the
desires and actions of society as a whole, leaving one slightly bemused as to how this abstract
space affects those inhabitants within it.

Lefebvre does, however, introduce interesting and key concepts concerning the contradictory
nature of abstract space. He discusses how these contradictions produce uneven development,
in a similar way to that of Edward Soja. In his book Postmodern Geographies, Soja was
clearly indebted to Lefebvre's theory of the production of space, for, he argues, it enabled one
to observe the way the economic and social presence of capitalism produces and reproduces
'geographically uneven development via simultaneous tendencies towards homogenisation,
fragmentation, and hierarchisation' 21. Unfortunately I do not have the 'space' to discuss uneven
development in great depth, yet it is useful to appropriate when Lefebvre discusses the
dominance of prohibition in abstract space.

The prohibition of space is a valuable concept when analysing contemporary capitalist spaces
and uneven development, for it is a concept that is in continuous operation. A simple example
of it, is that of the division between the space occupied by the poor, and that space dominated
by the wealthy: a spatialisation caused by this uneven development. In this instance, the poor
are generally prohibited from being active within the space of the wealthy, often because they
are seen as posing a threat to their secure property, or that they will spoil the optical formant of
that space. The wealthy are seen to have greater control over their mobility, in that they can and
may enter the poorer sections of this abstract space, for they are not directly prohibited because
of their social status and class position. However, this 'open' space of the poor may also be one
of prohibition, because this space may pose to a threat to the upper-classes, in terms of a high
crime rate, and thus this social class (the wealthy) may help cause this space to have the

21
Soja, Edward W. - Postmodern Geographies (Verso, London, 1989), p.50.
9

illusion of being prohibited. This is a classic illustration of this spatial operation 22, one that
Lefebvre briefly acknowledges. He, however, also offers an interesting example of the
difference between the space of night and the space of day. He argues that sexual activity is
welcome during the night, it has its space during this time, its abstract space is of the dark.
This space is dominated by prohibition during daylight, for it is the space of work that is
supposed to control space during this time of day, and sexual pleasure has no existence. This is
an odd example, yet it does also illustrate how the prohibition of abstract space influences the
everyday.

This performance of uneven development is the crux of abstract and contradictory space, yet
prohibition does not illustrate it to the full. It is the dialectic of the centre and the periphery that
Lefebvre observes as embracing these contradictions. He proposes that today, centrality is seen
as total, it is the space that continually strives to 'concentrate wealth, means of action,
knowledge, information and culture' 23, in order to survive being the centre. Although history
has proven the space of centrality to be subject to change and mobility, whilst it is able to retain
its centralised power, it is continually positioned in a dialectical relationship with its peripheral
space, and its logic (its 'coherence and cohesiveness' 24
). The centre-periphery dialectic
influences a number of spatial aspects: the commodification of space (the exchange value of
commodities controlling the space of the centre and vice versa), the use value of space (the
accessibility of moving to and from the centre and the periphery), the consumption and
production of the centre, and the relationship between quantitative and qualitative space (the
centrality of the space of the commodity against the peripheral space of the quality a holiday
produces). Each of these contradictory spatialites help the production of space, an abstract
space that is constantly determined by the centre-periphery dialectic of power, and it is
Lefebvre's discussion of Paris that allows one to analyse this concept in progress.

Paris, he argues, is like any city in that there is always something happening, and thus his
analysis of its space can be applied to any other city; or can it? Because Lefebvre comes from a
Marxist background, he has a tendency to concentrate on class politics, and as Paris is
traditionally (in the contemporary sense) a city divided between the haves and the have-nots, it
appears to be a prime example. Yet, his almost blinkered visions regarding other social factors,
may create complexities when applied to other cities such as Los Angeles, a city that is
supposedly a classless city. One must realise that although his reading of Paris is admirable, it
does exclude many other factors that play a role in the determination of a centralised space.

22
Explicit detail is paid to the effects this uneven development has within Los Angeles in Davis, Mike - City Of
Quartz (Vintage, London, 1990).
23
Lefebvre, Henri - The Production Of Space (Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1994), p.332.
24
Ibid. p.333.
10

Having put forward this complaint, I shall now examine Lefebvre's abstract space in operation.
He views the differences within the centre-periphery dialectic as growing. This is due to the
centralised powers dominating the representational space of the city centre, a space that has
been produced to represent wealth, and where the sections on the periphery are 'becoming more
working-class in character' 25. This power not only determines who and what is positioned in
the centre, but also controls the exclusion and inclusion of this contradictory space. Here one
can incorporate the above notion of prohibition. Lefebvre argues that the reason the city centre
appears homogenous is because its produced space disguises those elements that cause it to
reveal its fragmentary nature. This fragmentation is illustrated through those sects of society
that are prohibited from performing a role in the central visual-spatial space, and those who are
physically excluded and positioned on the margins (the periphery). The hegemonic political
power governs the spatial functioning of the city, creating a dominating effect. This is
undoubtedly 'true' of all cities, yet what Lefebvre attaches to this is the notion that 'abstract
space is inherently violent' 26
. What he seems to be saying here, is that any threat of
appropriation towards a 'politically dominated space' 27, will be met with violence. An abstract
space needs to be secure in its functioning of the contradictory nature of its space, and must
therefore acknowledge that it is simultaneously homogenous and fragmentary, otherwise that
centralised abstract space may be at risk of losing its private, global, and dominated space.
What Lefebvre appears to be discussing here is that 'power aspires to control space in its
entirety' 28. This can be applied to not only class politics, but also sexual politics, gender
politics, and race politics; all of which are aspects that he seems to skim over regarding the
dominatory nature of the centralised power. His observation that space is produced via the need
of power and domination, a space that also produces that power, is a key concept when looking
at Lefebvre's final 'contradiction between true space and the truth of space' 29.

True space apparently takes its form as a mental space (the space of 'theoretical man' 30
),
whereby the conceptions of social space or rather absolute space, are transformed into abstract
space. This mental space is correspondent to the space of the political, the space of power and
violence, which in turn produces the structure of a space as whole:

'Representational space disappears into the representation of space - the


latter swallows the former; and spatial practice, put into brackets along with
social practice as a whole. endures only as the unthought aspect of the
thought that has now pronounced itself sovereign ruler.' 31
25
Ibid. p.385.
26
Ibid. p.387.
27
Ibid. p.387.
28
Ibid. p.388.
29
Ibid. p.397.
30
Ibid. p.398.
31
Ibid. p.398.
11

This notion of true space prevails in society, it is the space that is commonly perceived within
the social realm. Lefebvre positions it in yet another dialectical relationship, combining it with
the truth of space.

The truth of space is specifically what I have been discussing throughout, it is the stage when
social space is combined with the theory of production (for this theory 'confirms its truth' 32), a
combination that is needed to fully comprehend the similarities and differences between social
space and mental space. It is a notion, or truth, that illustrates the way the centrality I have
been discussing operates; for it is the centre that encompasses the mental and the social,
regardless of prohibition, or other determining factors. However, this centre can only operate in
accord with its dialectical relationship to the peripheral, a relationship that has been
demonstrated in all the qualities to the point of near absorption.

Lefebvre thus leaves one with a sense that space is everything, that it is that 'truth of space'
which defines and controls the existence of the social subject in its everyday life. It is because
he positions space as being the most influential determinant in the construction of the social,
that Lefebvre has been criticised for elevating the 'urban spatial 'problematic' to an intolerably
central and apparently autonomous position' 33. I feel that this is a justified complaint, for it
does, at times, seem that Lefebvre excludes too much from his account of the production of
space, such as socio-cultural determinants. He does however propose outstanding ideas when
concerned with the specific spatial constraints positioned within a modern capitalist society.
Although, for myself, many of his theories have seemed to be a little too 'out-there', too
confusing, in that they are saturated in philosophical thought; Lefebvre's essay can be seen to
be, as David Harvey comments a 'magisterial' 34
text. I mention this, because his perceptive
notions of the dialectical relationships involved in the production of space, allow one to
consider the spatial operations involved in the make-up of the contemporary urban city, and
convince one that a 'science of space' can be established if one were to use Lefebvre's ideas to
examine the often confusing and contradictory nature of postmodern spaces such as Los
Angeles and Las Vegas.

32
Ibid. p.399.
33
Soja, Edward W. - Postmodern Geographies (Verso, London, 1989), p.76.
34
Lefebvre, Henri - The Production Of Space (Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1994), p.425.
12

Bibliography

Davis, Mike - City Of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (Vintage, London,1990).
Harvey, David - The Condition Of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural
Change (Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1990).
Lefebvre, Henri - The Production Of Space, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Blacwell
Publishers, Oxford, 1994).
Soja, Edward W. - Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social
Theory (Verso, London, 1989).
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