Before addressing the Bio Mapping project and the questions it raises about memory, embodiment, and representation, I want to first dig a little deeper into some of the major tenets of critical spatial theory and how they have come to inform place-based work in rhetoric and composition. Specifically, I want to explore what Lefebvre and Soja suggested about our abilities to account for everyday spatial practice and what alternatives exist in related discussions of space for thinking these abilities otherwise. I’ve chosen to focus on these theorists for two reasons. First, their work continues to influence spatial thinking in (and across) disciplines such as geography, urban studies, philosophy, political science, and sociology. And second, their work forms the theoretical cornerstones for several recent discussions of space in rhetoric and composition, most notably Nedra Reynolds’s, and in this respect Lefebvre and Soja have had a significant (albeit underappreciated) say in the development of our field’s most recent spatial turn.

As I noted in the introduction, critical spatial theory has gained increasing traction in many spatial rhetorics and pedagogies. To a certain degree, these affinities owe a great deal to the particular conception of space put forward by critical spatial theorists such as Lefebvre and Soja and their tendency to imagine space as less a static or inert object in the world and more a dynamic production of social, historical, and ideological relations. At the same time, however, it’s also likely that critical spatial theory’s uptake in our scholarship owes just as much, if not more, to Nedra Reynolds’s groundbreaking work on the politics of space in rhetoric and composition. In her book Geographies of Writing: Inhabiting Places and Encountering Difference, in particular, Reynolds (2004) provided as clear a roadmap as one can for the inclusion of critical spatial theory into rhetoric and composition. Drawing extensively on Lefebvre and Soja’s work, she argued that

Geographies of rhetoric and writing begin with the assertion that the way we map the world is a direct but complex result of gender, race, class, and abilities; images and feelings get imprinted in our head and on our bodies, affecting how we walk through a neighborhood, choose an apartment, find our way across campus, or navigate texts or acts of literacy. (p. 140)

Though Reynolds devoted the bulk of Geographies of Writing to analyzing the results of ethnographic fieldwork she conducted with cultural geography students at the University of Leeds, she also offered some specific suggestions for extending critical spatial theory to composition theory and pedagogy. One such suggestion comes in the form a place-based writing project she developed for first-year students at the University of Rhode Island. Described as an opportunity for students to explore and write about “areas of the campus with which they were completely unfamiliar, places where they’d never been” (p. 158), Reynolds’s “Mapping URI" project sought to enrich first-year students’ understandings of space by providing them ways to explore how places—even those on college campuses—invite different modes of spatial practice, in certain cases inviting students to dwell and in others imposing hardened boundaries or “geographies of exclusion” (p. 158). The goal of this assignment, Reynolds recounted, was for students “to collect data and analyze it and then write an essay that both presented their findings and reflected on the experience, particularly in terms of how it felt to visit that unfamiliar place and what they sensed about being an insider or outsider” (p. 158, emphasis original). By calling attention to ways emotions inform experiences of social spaces, Reynolds’s project asked students to not only document their movements through “different buildings, quadrangles, or parking lots” (p. 158), but to reflect as well on the embodied sensations they had in those particular places. Reynolds’s assignment thus had two primary goals: 1) to orient students to the material conditions of spatial production; and 2) to provide students opportunities to write about their emotional experiences of these conditions and in so doing learn how familiar social spaces are often “arranged to organize the control of difference, or to silence those ‘too different’ for the space” (p. 174).

I’ll return to the Mapping URI project during my discussions of Nold’s Bio Mapping project and my own “Engaging Memory/Representing Trauma” assignment. At this point, however, I want to emphasize the degree to which Reynolds’s project reflects a commitment to critical spatial theory and how that commitment in turn asks students to imagine space, including the traces of how they felt in certain places, in very specific ways. As an assignment intended to provide students “strategies for movement and dwelling” and that “encourages the use of memory and particular attention to the arrangement and uses of space” (p. 162), Mapping URI seems to presuppose a facility on the part of writing and other inscription technologies (such as maps, for example) to recuperate and make presentable as knowledge students’ memories of past spatial experiences, including how they felt at particular times and places. And while I certainly do not mean to shortchange Reynolds’s own insights as a theorist, critic, or teacher, it’s clear that this way of imagining space and spatial praxis owes a tremendous debt to the particular branch of critical spatial theory upon which she draws so extensively throughout Geographies of Writing. As Reynolds herself noted, it is Lefebvre and, later, Soja who were perhaps most responsible for renewing the academy’s interest in space as a scene of both critical and political practice. In this sense alone, therefore, it’s worth exploring in more detail how these two critics have encouraged us to think about space and what worldviews they might be inviting us to adopt and integrate into our spatial rhetorics and place-based pedagogies.

Even though Lefebvre’s major work The Production of Space was published in France in 1974, it was not translated into English until 1991 and, even then, did not receive much attention until cultural geographers and critical theorists such as Soja and David Harvey began to introduce Lefebvre to American and British readers through their own works (see Reynolds, 2004, pp. 14-20). In his first book Postmodern Geographies, Soja (1989) introduced Lefebvre as perhaps the “least known and most misunderstood of the great figures in twentieth-century Marxism,” even though he had quietly become “the primary source for the assault against historicism and the reassertion of space in critical social theory” (p. 41). While Lefebvre remained faithful to Marxism’s underlying emancipatory politics throughout much of his life, he nevertheless held certain reservations about Marxist theory, in particular regarding its commitment to historicism which tended, in his view, to lead theorists to unduly privilege time over space in their interpretations of modes of production and social relation.

Working within and against such versions of historicism, Lefebvre proposed another, more socially dynamic conception of space that saw it as deeply involved—and therefore quite consequential to—the historical organization of social relations and critical consciousness. “The structure of organized space,” Soja argued in reference to Lefebvre’s work, “is not a separate structure with its own autonomous laws of construction and transformation, nor is it simply an expression of the class structure emerging from social (and thus aspatial?) relations of production. It represents, instead, a dialectically defined component of the general relations of production, relations which are simultaneously social and spatial” (p. 78). According to Lefebvre and Soja after him, history does not (indeed cannot) precede space, and neither does it wholly produce space in its own image. History and space, rather, form a complex dialectical relationship between the productions of space and the productions of historical consciousness. And it’s these relationships, they argued, that must inform a new critical social/spatial theory.

One of the obstacles standing in the way of such a theory, however, is the persistent belief that space isn’t significant—that it is either a mere collection of things (what Lefebvre called “the realistic illusion”) or a mental construct divorced from the materiality of spatiality (“the illusion of transparency”). With respect to the latter, Lefebvre argued that “The illusion of transparency goes hand in hand with a view of space as innocent, as free of traps or secret places" (p. 28). Transparent space is therefore an assumption that “the world can be seen as it really is and that there can be unmediated access to the truth of objects it sees; it is a space of mimetic representation" (Blunt & Rose, 1994, as cited in Reynolds, 2004, p. 20). By conceiving of space in this way, critical theorists have, according to Soja (1989), helped to “occlude, devalue, and de-politicize space as an object of critical social discourse” to such an extent “that even the possibility of an emancipatory spatial praxis disappeared from view for almost a century” (p. 4). Like the occluded modes of production targeted in more traditional Marxist theory, the illusion of transparency, Soja argued, must therefore be countered with similar methodological rigor committed to “a politics of resistance and demystification …that can pull away the deceptive ideological veils that are today reifying and obscuring” our understandings of sociality in postmodernity (p. 5). As he put it early in Postmodern Geographies,

We must be insistently aware of how space can be made to hide consequences from us, how relations of power and discipline are inscribed into the apparently innocent spatiality of social life, how human geographies become filled with politics and ideology. (p. 6)

As one might expect, this impulse to want to demystify the production of space is a common one in both Lefebvre and Soja’s works. Within many Marxist and neo-Marxists frameworks, critique is often valued as a means of achieving empowerment and liberation, a way to unmask and thus potentially disarm society’s structures and constraints that, through critique, are often revealed to be re/produced by ideologies that appear to us as natural or transhistorical.

For critical spatial theorists such as Lefebvre and Soja, critique thus functions as a way to make visible dominant representations of space and the pressures these representations exert on everyday spatial practices. In The Production of Space, Lefebvre (1974/1991) defined these representations of space as abstractions inherited through the ideologies and epistemologies of “scientists, planners, urbanists, technocratic subdividers and social engineers” (p. 38). He contrasted such abstract representations with what he called lived or representational spaces, which “need obey no rules of consistency or cohesiveness” and which “have their source in history—in the history of a people as well as in the history of each individual belonging to that people” (p. 41). Like many critical theorists, Lefebvre characterized these individual lives and histories as inherently opposed to (and perhaps deconstructive of) dominant modes of representation and production, which, according to Lefebvre, are largely inconsistent with the lived complexities of everyday spatial practice (p. 41). Although Lefebvre did not go so far as to claim that such representations can ever be completely dismantled (indeed, his “trialectics of spatiality” acknowledged the importance representations of space hold in the production of spatial practices), he maintained that the path toward a critique of space must go through the everyday—through the quotidian ways people live, embody, and contest space and its representations. As Reynolds put it, “The way to address and resist these containerized conceptions of space—though we can never ‘eliminate’ them—is to focus on spatial practices of the everyday—those habitual movements through space that are often taken for granted or ignored—and to try to understand how they inscribe differences” (p. 45).

Lefebvre and Reynolds’s admission that representations of space can never be fully eliminated helps underscore both the power these representations hold over us and the degree to which representation itself necessarily accompanies any discursive accounting of spatial experience. That being said, what critical spatial theory sometimes fails to consider is how all representations, even those of everyday spatial practices, are partial and thus prone to multiple fissures and interruptions that serve to frustrate the ability of language to bring the everyday into presence as a concept. Recovering “childhood memories, dreams, or uterine images and symbols” (Lefebvre, 1974/1991, p. 41), in other words, may be temporarily productive in countering the dominant representations of space, but it may not alone succeed in fully displacing the rationalism at the heart of the representational enterprise—a rationalism that presumes an ability to recuperate such images and symbols that characterize our individual experiences and memories in/of space. So while critical spatial theory may succeed in moving conversations about space beyond the limiting ideologies of transparency and illusion, its commitment to the logics of critique and demystification nevertheless leaves it vulnerable to many of the same functions of representation it hoped to dismantle in the first place—in this case forwarding a worldview, however provisional, multiple, or inconsistent, in which the liberatory language of critique offers the potential to identify, represent, and narrativize the complexities of everyday spatial practice.

In the end, Lefebvre positioned his trialectics of spatiality as a counterpoint to binary theories (subject/object) that “tend to define intelligibility in terms of opposites and systems of opposites” (p. 39). Such systems, he argued, presuppose and perpetuate “perfect” systems “whose rationality is supposed, when subjected to mental scrutiny, to be self-evident” (p. 39). They assume, in other words, our abilities to “decrypt” the social, which as Lefebvre and many other 20th century theorists have noted, often has the effect of “suppressing all resistance, all obscurity, in its very being” (p. 40). It’s safe to say, I think, that Lefebvre worried about the existence and perpetuation of totalizing theories of space (or anything else)—theories that presuppose the conditions of spatial relation and that work in accordance to fashion the world in that image. In this respect, I am in complete agreement with him. But there’s also a risk, I want to argue, in contesting representations of space in this way. Although attempting to unmask and demystify hidden power relations can satisfy in the short term, doing so also has the potential to leave in place the very thing we hoped to transcend—in this case the problem of yet another representation of space quietly asserting its own truth or authenticity. What needs to be engaged and tarried with, therefore, isn’t the mystified nature of space itself, but the limits that accompany our abilities to conceive or represent space (and our being-in space) in the first place.