Is the Notion of Measurement What the Urban is About?


Photo from

“The space of a (social) order is hidden in the order of space.” – Henri Lefebvre

The visual simplicity of Henri Lefebvre’s statement is deceptive. The mirror-like structure of the sentence distracts the reader from the complexities of the content. All one sees is the reflection of the space of a social order in the order of space. Like a mirror, the structure of the sentence reflects an inverted image; in this case, it reflects the space of a (social) order. Lefebvre places parentheses around social in order to emphasize the mirror-like structure. The object (the space of an order) is radically different from the image (the order of space), for left is inverted to right, but it is seen as identical. This reading of Lefebvre’s statement is inspired by Lefebvre’s own musings in The Production of Space about the power of the mirror to hide:

The mirror is a surface at once pure and impure, almost material yet virtually unreal…Here what is identical is at the same time radically other, radically different – and transparency is equivalent to opacity. (184-5)

That is, the materiality of the social order is absent in the reflection. The order of space as a representation or sign of the space of a social order evacuates the materiality of the social order. That which is represented, that which appears, at once reveals as it conceals. It is no coincidence, then, that the object and the image of Lefebvre’s sentence revolve around what functions as the mirror, the word hidden.

Statistics and measurement do not do the urban justice. They are signs that hide material reality. Marxist urban theorist Andy Merrifield, continuing Lefebvre’s thought, stated the following in a talk at the University of Manchester: “I’m not sure that my vision of urban studies is to think about measurement, to think about quantification, to think about statistical analysis…The notion of measurement isn’t what the urban is about.”

I wonder what Lefebvrebot would say about this from

Open Process

Malcolm Compitello in Madrid.

It cannot be emphasized enough the importance of movement and process in order to understand everyday life in Spanish cities.  Malcolm Compitello, Professor of Spanish at the University of Arizona, and Susan Larson, Associate Professor of Spanish at the University of Kentucky, both read Lefebvre’s notion of space as process and not product. This is probably the single most important contribution to the study of the urban experience in the Spanish context. Dr. Compitello was recently honored for his contributions to the fields of Hispanic literature and Hispanic urban cultural studies at the Kentucky Foreign Languages and Literatures Conference (April 18-20, 2013). He was praised for his tireless effort to promote academic as well as extradisciplinary dialogue.

Artists like Steve Lambert see the value in dialogue as well. In his project “Capitalism Works for Me! True/False,” he built the following sign


and placed it in public space hoping that the sign would generate conversation and incite people to reflect on capitalism. He would ask people to vote either “True, capitalism works for me” or “False, capitalism doesn’t work for me” and then he would ask them why they voted the way they did.  Lambert explains the project and some of the responses he received in the following Creative Time Summit video – very funny and informative (click on the photo):

Steve Lambert Creative Time Summit

Intellectuals like Compitello and artists like Lambert understand that open dialogue elicits self-reflection and collective questioning, two practices that form part of the process of social change.

Compitello, Malcolm Alan, and Susan Larson. “Cities, Culture… Capital? Recent Cultural Studies Approaches to Spain’s Cities.” Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies 2, no. 2 (2001): 232-238.