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  • 8/8/2019 Alternatives SPACE, SUBJECTIVITY AND POLITICS Howarth



    David Howarth*

    Department of Government,University of Essex

    Colchester, Essex, UK, C04 3SQ



    This article questions the more exaggerated c laims of a free-standing spatial heuristic in explaining,justifying and criticizing social practices, not least because the category of space remains under-theorisedand conceptually indeterminate. Building-upon the work of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, MartinHeidegger, Ernesto Laclau, and others, the article clarifies the category of space, showing precisely howand why it is important for understanding politics, subjectivity and ethics. It calls for the envisaging ofspaces of heterogene ity that are compatible with radical democratic demands for equality and apolitics of becoming, and which can form the basis of a post-structuralist conception of


    KEY W ORDS: ethics, politics, space, subjectivity, time, radical democracy

    mailto:[email protected]:[email protected]
  • 8/8/2019 Alternatives SPACE, SUBJECTIVITY AND POLITICS Howarth


    Space, Subjectivity and Politics

    David Howarth

    The face of the earth is continually changing, by the increase of small kingdoms into great empires,

    by the dissolution of great empires into smaller kingdoms, by the planting of colonies, by the

    migration of tribes. Is there any thing discoverable in all these events bu t force and violence?

    Where is the mutual agreement or voluntary association so much talked of?

    David Hume, 19931

    It is widely acknowledged that our conceptions and experiences of space have changed considerably in

    recent times. They have been transformed by the development of new or more sophisticated

    technologies, such as the internet, the jet-plane, and the mob ile phone, which bring things and people

    that were once distant closer, while simultaneously rendering others further away. An electronic version

    of an academic journal article available on the internet and accessible on ones computer screen is far

    closer than the hardcopy resting on the shelves of the university library, even though the source of the

    former might be many thousands of miles away. Similarly, an out-of-town shopping mall reachable by2

    motor car is widely perceived to be nearer than the local shop to which one can walk or cycle, even

    though the physical distance of the former far exceeds the latter. Air travel has made the cities and

    places of other countries more accessible to many citizens than the regions, towns and rural areas of

    their own countries.

    It is also alleged that alongside these altered subjective experiences correspond important

    objective changes in the character of space itself. Firstly, the globalization of financial markets accelerates

    economic exchanges, bringing spatially dispersed agents and institutions closer together to trade and

    invest, while intensely affecting social actors and processes across the globe. Secondly, the increasing

    mobility of individual capitals, which are able to re locate their firms in order to offset falling profits

  • 8/8/2019 Alternatives SPACE, SUBJECTIVITY AND POLITICS Howarth



    and/or to secure relative locational advantage, triggers an ongoing dialectic of deterritorialization and

    reterritorialization as competing social forces seek to fix the spatial positioning of plants and businesses.

    And lastly the rapid development and spread of new techno logies in the fields of commun ication and

    transportation has resulted in what Marx called the annihilation of space with time, as once fixed and

    seemingly natural spatial barriers and boundaries such as territorially delimited frontiers - are eroded

    by increases in the speed of sending material goods, information, and people. All that is solid melts into3

    the air, Marx wrote famously in The Communist Manifesto, and his prophecy is as prescient as ever. In

    short, a whole host of phenomena, ranging from the weakening and porosity of national territorial

    boundaries, the actual and potential globalization of contingency in the form of global pandemics and

    the spectre of environmental catastrophe, to the backlash of increasing territorialization as new forms o f

    imperialism, international isolationism, political fundamentalism, ethno-nationalist particularism or

    projects for a fortress Europe seek to reverse these trends, point to the increasing salience of

    changing conceptions of space and time in our contemporary globalizing world.

    In social and political theory, the so-called spatial turn is equally well-established. Social

    theorists and political economists such as David Harvey, Bob Jessop and A lain Lipietz employ concepts

    such as spatial and spatio-temporal fixes to explain the way crisis tendencies in the logic of capital

    accumulation are offset and displaced in the capitalist mode of production. Urban social theorists such4

    as Manuel Castells, Henri Lefebvre, and Jean Lojkine s tress the spatial determinants of social and political

    processes, such as the provision of means of collective consumption. The historian Benedict Anderson5

    incorporates spatial dimensions of analysis into his account of the power of nationalist ideologies to

    forge political identities.6

    There have also been efforts to connect reflections about space directly to politics. In For Space,

    for instance, Doreen Massey challenges the widespread fact that space has so often been excluded

    from, or inadequately conceptualised in relation to, and has thereby debilitated our conceptions of,

    politics and the political, and then develops an argument for the recognition of particular

  • 8/8/2019 Alternatives SPACE, SUBJECTIVITY AND POLITICS Howarth



    characteristics of space and for a politics that can respond to them. Similarly, Margaret Kohns Radical7

    Space puts spatial concerns at the centre of democratic theory by examining different sites of working-

    class and popular mobilizations in Western Europe. She focuses on the creation of case del popolo8

    (houses of the people) as sites of resistance and transformative political practices in turn-of-the-

    [twentieth]-century Italy. For her, political groups created distinctive places to develop new identities

    and practices, while using such public spaces to democratize ever-widening se ts of social relations.

    And if these affirmed re lations are not as stark as Henri Lefebvres bold assertion that Space is

    political, that is, not a scientific object removed from ideology or politics, but always political and

    strategic, then it is still regarded as integral for analyzing social reality and political practices today.9

    Viewed in this light, it is unsurprising that Hardt and Negris widely discussed books Emp ire and

    Multitude put issues such as space, territorialization, and deterritorialization at the heart of their

    analyses. In sum, it is fair to say that in contemporary political theory, at both the explanatory and10

    normative levels of analysis, locutions such as private and public spaces, the conception of a plurality

    of political spaces, the public sphere as a space of opposition and accountability, quasi-public space,

    spaces of resistance, territorialization and deterritorialization, public spaces of freedom, dialogic

    spaces, and so forth, continue to flourish in our attempts to come to terms with the late modern


    Despite this proliferating theoretical and empirical discourse, however, the precise meaning of

    the category of space has not been rendered more perspicuous. To the contrary, not only is there

    significant dispute about the different meanings of space, but there has b een much debate about its

    importance for social and political analysis. In this article, I begin by considering these ambiguities and

    disputes, after which I endeavour to develop a category of space which can inform our understanding of

    social and physical space, while profitably addressing a number of pressing questions in contemporary

    political theory. I then explore the ethical and political implications of this conception by addressing a

    series of pressing concerns in our contemporary world. Here I focus especially on the construction of

  • 8/8/2019 Alternatives SPACE, SUBJECTIVITY AND POLITICS Howarth



    political boundaries, the inner composition of social space, and the question of political subjectivity.

    (How) Does Space Matter?

    Let me begin with two opposed accounts of space. On the one hand, Doreen Massey argues that

    Geography matters in both its senses, of distance/nearness/betweeness and of the physical variation of

    the earths surface (the two being c losely related) is not a constraint on a pre-existing non-geographical

    social and economic world. It is constitutive of that world.12

    In a later exchange w ith Laclau she goes on to claim that Spatial form as outcome ... has emergent

    powers which can have effects on subsequent events. Indeed, the claims of Massey and those13

    sympathetic to her project have been generalised into what Ed Soja calls a socio-spatial dialectic, in

    which the structure of organized space is a dialectically defined component of the general relations

    of production, relations of production which are simultaneously social and spatial. In a similar fashion,14

    Anthony Giddens argues that space is not an empty dimensio