Progress through Spatial Conflicts. An Application of Henri Lefebvre's "The Production of Space" to Paul Auster's "Moon Palace"

Term Paper, 2015
43 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Henri Lefebvre's Concept of the Production of Space and the Spatial Triad

3. Social Spaces in Contemporary America
3.1. An Escape from the Urban: The Streets of New York City
3.2 A Futile Spatial Revolution: Central Park
3.3. Spatial Ignorance as Bliss: Chinatown
3.4. Finding One's Space in the World: The Desert in Utah and the Pacific Shore in California

4. Conclusion

Works Cited

Progress through Spatial Conflicts: An Application of Henri Lefebvre's The Production of Space to Paul Auster's Moon Palace

1. Introduction

If you don't go out there, he said, you'll never understand what space is. Your work will stop growing if you don't make the trip. (Auster 146)

To "go out there" in "order to understand what space is" is an advice reported to Marco Stanley Fogg, the protagonist and first person narrator of Paul Auster's Moon Palace, roughly in the middle of the book, which is filled to the brim with spatial references and metaphors. It is all the more surprising that while many works by Paul Auster have aroused attention in the field of urban space studies, examples are The New York Trilogy (cf. Alford), The Brooklyn Follies (cf. Brinkmann and Thoene) and In the Country of Last Things (cf. Merlob; cf. Bay), this does not seem to be true for his Moon Palace. Literary criticism on Moon Palace like, e.g., Christian Seidl's essay "Regeneration through Creativity – The Frontier in Paul Auster's Moon Palace" is often concerned with the novel's representation of the American Dream and in particular its construction of the Frontier. Notwithstanding the obvious connection to the reordering of American space by the latter, criticism has not paid special attention to the novel's more general construction of space and does not read the book employing spatial theories. And yet, a focus on the construction of urban and rural spaces in this novel can contribute to its more profound understanding. A spatial approach towards Moon Palace discloses the author's attempt to investigate (the history of) distinct American spatial economics and politics as much as its consequent socio-practical implementations that dominate urban and rural spaces. Auster strategically represents different facets of the urban space of New York City, the desert space in Utah to highlight and criticize the highly problematic spatial politics and ideologies that have prevailed in contemporary American society since the 1960s.

As a theoretical framework for the analysis of the politics of space in Auster's novel, Henri Lefebvre's concept of the production of space, which is outlined in his revolutionary and highly influential eponymous work (cf. Schmid 193; cf. Elden, "Introduction" 165), appears to be adequate. According to the French philosopher and sociologist, spaces are socially produced (cf. Lefebvre, The Production of Space 31). His conceptual triad of perceived, conceived, and lived space outlines the different mechanisms that come into operation during the production of (social) spaces. These mechanisms are taken up, multiplied and more often than not naturalized in representations of spaces in different media. What is especially interesting in Auster's and other postmodernist representations of space is how familiar American spaces are reproduced while denaturalizing the production of them at the same time.

I will argue that Auster's literary production of space in Moon Palace highlights just like Lefebvre "that space needs to be understood not in two ways – as conceived, abstract thought of space, or perceived, concrete reality of space – but in three ways, with the additional of space as lived" (Elden, Understanding 187, emphasis original). To put it into Lefebvre's own terms, in Moon Palace Auster examines "the coming-into-being and disappearance of codings/decodings" (Lefebvre Production 18) of American space. In order to reveal these processes, this investigation is concerned with the adventures and ruminations of the novel's protagonist Marco Stanley Fogg, whose name fittingly alludes to those of famous fictional and non-fictional explorers of space: Marco Polo, Henry Morton Stanley and Phileas Fogg (Auster 6). I will show how Auster renders Fogg's lived space as an antithetical means of subversion towards both, conceived representations of space and perceived spatial practice under modern capitalism in the United States. Interestingly, Fogg's space of representation is constantly forced to succumb to the latter predominant modes of spatial production and never able to subvert them. Yet, while Auster repeatedly renders the iconoclast, imaginative and creative resources of spaces of representation as hazardous and harmful for the protagonist, they are also constructed as necessary for Fogg's subsistence in space and essential for his coming-of-age in the sociopolitical context of the late 1960s.

The first part of this essay outlines the basic theoretical framework of Lefebvre's The Production of Space and draws special attention to his spatial triad. Against this theoretical backdrop, the next part focuses on Auster's literary construction of three different spaces in Manhattan: the streets, Central Park and Chinatown. Subsequently, the analysis follows the plot of the novel and leaves New York City to investigate the non-urban spaces of the desert in Utah and the Pacific shore at Laguna Beach, California. Similar to Lefebvre's own approach, this chapter is less concerned with an investigation of these spaces as such, but rather focuses on how they reflect the inherent modes of their production and how these modes affect the protagonist's feelings and actions throughout the novel (cf. Lefebvre, "Preface" 211). The question how Fogg actively participates in the production of space will lead to a more differentiated understanding of Moon Palace and will reveal the complex socio-political criticism that is implied in Auster's representation of American spaces. At the end of this paper, I will sum up my findings and evaluate the applicability and benefit of Lefebvre's theory for literary criticism.

Hence, to "go out there" and "make the trip" in order to understand space (Auster 146) does not only go for the protagonist of the novel. In fact, it highlights the importance of space for understanding the novel in general and may also serve as the leitmotif for this essay: If one does not "make the trip" of employing new theories for literary criticism, one's "work will stop growing." It is with this aim in view that this essay intends to cast new light on the role of the production of space in Moon Palace by Paul Auster.

2. Henri Lefebvre's Concept of the Production of Space and the Spatial Triad

Christian Seidl's attempt to analyze Moon Palace is typical for most approaches to Auster's novel in its concern with the novel's representation of the Frontier and the American Dream (cf. Springer). In focusing on the regenerative function of the "geographic location of the historic frontier" (Seidl 60) and the diverging "Urban Frontier" as "an urban setting that can be read as a frontier situation within a city" (Seidl 78n) but which fails to be used for regenerative purposes, Seidl takes one important notion of space—in the novel and in the American history and imagination—into account. Yet, he considers only the space of the Frontier while Auster sketches more and equally interesting spaces in his novel. And, even less convincing, he understands the space beyond the Frontier in the Turnerian tradition as a space that is pre-existing, empty and inert before human occupation and that is consequently explored or "pioneered" by the characters in the story (cf. Seidl 68). Although this preconception of space may contribute to a certain reading of Moon Palace, it simultaneously predetermines the interpretation of the novel in a way that disregards other significant aspects.

In his new approach towards space, the French philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre does not deem (social) spaces to be preexisting empty containers that are filled with content and meaning by human beings (cf. Lefebvre, Production 87), but to be (socially) produced (ibid. 26). Thus, Lefebvre is not so much concerned with investigating space as an entity itself, but rather aims to reproduce and reveal the processes of its production. Hence, there is a shift in perspective as it is not merely a theory of space, but rather a theory of the production of space (Schmid 203f; Lefebvre, "Preface" 211). He argues that every state and society produces and is in itself a social space (Lefebvre 31). Thus, politics, history and ideology influence the ways spaces come into being (cf. Elden, Understanding 192). In relation to the traditional understanding of "the 'front' of power," that is, the power relations at the frontier, Lefebvre writes that the 'front' of power is not like a frontier on the map or a line of trenches on the ground. Power is everywhere; it is omnipresent, assigned to being. It is everywhere in space, […] social space remains the social space of Power. (Lefebvre, The Survival of Capitalism, 86ff, emphasis original)

This means for the following analysis that in order to look for regenerative or other forces in Auster's novel, one needs to look not only at the "frontier on the map," or Auster's representation of the very territory that was dubbed the Frontier in American history, but also at the rendering of other (social) spaces in the novel. Moreover, it means that one needs to investigate in particular the power relations that are shown in these spaces and through them. In terms of the investigation of (social) spaces, Lefebvre argues that they can be "read" once they have been produced (cf. Lefebvre, Production 17). And in order to read these spaces one can apply his spatial triad to reveal the different powers that are involved in the process of producing social space.

The first concept of the spatial triad is spatial practice which is performed on the physical level and makes but also remakes the space that is perceived, used and generated by members of a society (Lefebvre, Production 14, 33). Spatial practice "produces [space] slowly and surely as it masters and appropriates it" (ibid. 38). For instance, the spatial practice of a given society can be predetermined and directed by the principle of capitalism. According to this, Lefebvre claims that "[t]here is the global practice of a society, capitalism: its praxis" (The Survival of Capitalism, 29). Thus, members of society are both, active producers and reproducers of the predominant spatial practice, but also subject to it. For Lefebvre spatial practice under neocapitalism "embodies a close association […] between daily reality (daily routine) and urban reality (the routes and networks which link up the places set aside for work, 'private' life and leisure)" (Production 38).

Frederick Jackson Turner summarizes a whole century of Western spatial practice when he writes that "The buffalo trail became the Indian trail, and this became the traders 'trace;' the trails widened into roads and the roads turnpikes, and these in turn were transformed into railroads" (Turner 14; cf. also Lefebvre, "Preface" 211f), while the railroads would facilitate the immigration of Chinese laborers, who carved out a – severely embattled and largely historically unacknowledged – space in the American West. A concrete example from Moon Palace can be given by referring to Kitty Wu, Fogg's girlfriend, whose life as a commuter is temporally and spatially predetermined by a close association with the neocapitalist spatial practice: "Kitty worked [for a trade magazine] from nine to five every day, travelling back and forth on the subway with millions of other commuters in the summer heat" (Auster 224).

The second mode of production, which Lefebvre calls representations of space, describes the space that is mentally conceived by "scientists, planners, urbanists, technocratic subdividers and social engineers" (Lefebvre, Survival 14, 38) who conceptualize space on an abstract level (cf. ibid. 41) by means of knowledge, logic, maps and mathematics (cf. ibid. 14, 233). According to Lefebvre, this "conceived space" has an important effect on the social and political practice as it represents "the dominant space in any society" (ibid. 39f) and expresses the ideology of spatiality (cf. ibid. 207b). For Lefebvre, the act of spatial planning represents "capitalism's and the state's strategic instrument for the manipulation of fragmented urban reality and the production of controlled space" (Lefebvre, Survival 15).

Turner's frontier thesis or the Chinese Exclusion Act would exemplify these dominant practices as representations as well as the various maps that chart and lay out rural as well as city space, neatly dividing American space into realms of "savagery and civilization" (Turner 3) or New York City into white and healthy as against "other" and contagious Chinatown spaces. Moon Palace features different kinds of representations of space. One important example that stands out, are the representations of John Wesley Powell, an explorer of the American West, whose book about the mapping expedition down the Colorado River is read by Fogg and Effing in the fourth chapter (cf. Auster 107). On another expedition in 1873 together with the painter Thomas Moran, "who showed Americans what the West looked like," they "mapped [Manifest Destiny]" and "digested it into the great American profit machine" (ibid. 145) with the incentive to conquer "the last bits of the continent, the blank spaces no one had explored" and "laid it out on a pretty piece of canvas for everyone to see" (ibid.). Being charged with political meaning these representations of space aspire to stabilize given power relations. The way it is represented in the book, Moran's art can thus be read as an "ideologically driven way of capturing an idealized West for capitalist ends" (Peacock 128). However, representations of space are not necessarily confined to the theoretical realm. In fact, Lefebvre argues that they have a practical impact, that they intervene in and modify spatial textures which are informed by effective knowledge and ideology [.…] Their intervention occurs by way of construction - in other words, by way of architecture, conceived of not as the building of a particular structure, palace or monument, but rather as a project embedded in a spatial context and a texture (Lefebvre 42).

The third concept is called spaces of representation [1] . It is the social space of "inhabitants" and "users" who live space through "its associated images and symbols" (Lefebvre, Production 14, 39). This also includes the descriptions of space by artists, writers and philosophers, who "aspire to do no more than describe," that is, who do not conceptualize and thereby create "representations of space" (ibid. 39). Space is produced, changed and reinterpreted by imagination individually, i.e. the symbolic use of physical space (cf. ibid.) which represents and is influenced by culture (cf. ibid. 40). While representations of space imply and require a formal knowledge (savoir/wissen) of space, spaces of representation require and reveal a less formal but more local and artistic knowledge (connaissance/kennen). Moreover, spaces of representation, in contrast to representations of space, do not have to follow a certain logic or rules of cohesiveness and consistency but can be produced, changed and appropriated imaginatively (cf. Lefebvre , Production 41). Thus, spaces of representations bring about symbolic works. They embrace both previous concepts of space and consider it as both real and imagined. As such, they can bring about new ways of thinking of and acting within certain spaces.

An example from the novel would be Fogg's lengthy and detailed description of Ralph Albert Blakelock's painting "Moonlight" in the virtual center of the novel (cf. Weisenburger 137). Fogg remarks that the painting is not intended to reproduce an actual real landscape. Its surreal elements, like the green sky, the night that looks like day and the dwarfed human forms of Native Americans are rather employed for an artistic effect to create a harmony between heaven and earth. Fogg interprets it as a means of protest against the oppression of Native Americans at end of the 19th century by "the white men". It appears to stand for "everything we had lost […] a memorial, a death song for a vanished world" (Auster 135). This painting stems from imagination and creativity and does not function as a rational and close representation of the physical world as it is, but stresses what Steven Weisenburger calls the "gaps of realistic representation" (140, emphasis original). For the American scholar Fogg's interpretation2 of the painting in this scene is momentous as it establishes the "standard of aesthetic, moral and ideological values in this novel" (137). The literary example ties in with Lefebvre's own interest in paintings by Pignons and other Cubists who use art as means of challenging the geometric representation of space (cf. Elden, Understanding 182). Both examples epitomize the imaginative and creative character Lefebvre ascribes to spaces of representation. They possess revolutionary potential and can be lived as an opposition against enforced (political) conformity (Guelf 21).

These three concepts of the production of space are interconnected and their relation to each other is described as a "dialectical" and contradictory one (Lefebvre, Production 39f). That is why it is necessary to cast light on these interrelationships as well as on the history of space and its production (ibid. 42). Concerning possible political and ideological conflicts within and between these three elements of the spatial triad, Lefebvre postulates:

Socio-political contradictions are realized spatially. The contradictions of space thus make the contradictions of social relations operative. In other words, spatial contradictions 'express' conflicts between socio-political interests and forces; it is only in space that such conflicts come effectively into play, and in so doing they become contradictions of space. (Production 365, emphasis original)

Thus, space becomes the platform for sociopolitical discourse and thereby it adopts an essential function in society. In this regard Lefebvre argues that the state, by its political power, aims to reduce the contradictions in space by mediated knowledge that is determined by science and ideology, or in Lefebvre's own terms, by "the state's repressive apparatus" (Lefebvre, Survival 11; Production 106).

The next part of this essay examines with the help of Lefebvre's spatial triad how Auster investigates the history and the present of the American production of space and how the contradictions that are implied in the process and experienced by the novel's characters uncover the author's socio-political criticism.

3. Social Spaces in Contemporary America

Auster's novelistic, American spaces embrace the different spatial facets of the lived, the perceived and the conceived and thereby reveal the impact of history, politics and ideology that affect spatial production. He represents specifically the conflicts between perceived, conceived and lived American spaces. Fogg, the protagonist and narrator of the book, trying to live in different places in and outside of New York gets entangled and even caught in different spatial practices and positive and negative experiences enable him to stay or force him to leave certain spaces. The initiation story of Marco Stanley Fogg is told in terms of spatial appropriation. What starts as harmless childhood game of inventing new countries like "The Land of Sporadic Light" and the "Kingdom of One-Eyed Man" (Auster 6) with his uncle is later followed by his exploration of various 'actual' social spaces in urban and rural contemporary America, only to find out that reality and fantasy or perceived, conceived and lived space is not neatly to be divided.

Yet, in the beginning of the book it seems the two are and may be kept strictly separate. This is also how the narrator explains his and his uncle's reason to escape the real-life places into fantasy: "Given the difficulties the real world had created for both of us, it probably made sense that we should want to leave it as often as possible" (ibid.). By calling it his own "difficulties" Fogg alludes to the fact that he grew up as an orphan, does not know his father and has to live with his uncle as his surrogate parent. The following subchapter analyzes Fogg's experiences in "the real world" of New York City after the death of his uncle in the first chapter and focuses on the time he spends on the streets.

3.1. An Escape from the Urban: The Streets of New York City

Subsequent to an episode of self-chosen impoverishment, which is partially reasoned by the recent death of his uncle, Fogg, a twenty-year-old Columbia University graduate, is forced to leave his apartment because he cannot pay his rent anymore. Moreover, his insufficient nutrition has caused him to lose a lot of weight. For Fogg, however, his "militant refusal to take any action at all," expresses a "nihilism raised to the level of an aesthetic proposition" (Auster 21) which already foreshadows his perpetual attempt to turn his life into subversive art (cf. Peacock 124). In his weak condition Fogg steps out of his door and wonders where to go. At this moment Lefebvre's three different elements of the spatial triad can be illuminated by Fogg's descriptions and experiences in the streets of New York City as they present political, economic and ideological conditions that illustrate Fogg's alienation and exclusion from society. The spaces that are produced and determined by these triform mechanisms affect the protagonist's feelings and actions. He develops contempt towards the streets of New York as a social space and more and more avoids it. Consequently, the different relations and contradictions between and within the perceived, conceived and lived spaces result in his escape from them.

In the beginning of his walk through the streets, his mobility is restricted by the impacts of representations of space on the Upper West Side and the prevalent spatial practice in the neighborhood. His first steps take him south and after two blocks he realizes that it is probably a good idea to leave his former neighborhood. He consciously avoids the alternative of going north towards Morningside Heights because of various reasons. From the perspective of urban planners Morningside Heights can be regarded as a neighborhood which is dominated by academic institutions. As home to Columbia University, the Barnard College and the Manhattan School of Music it can be seen as an area of education and intellectuality; a "conceptualized space" that has been "conceived" (cf. Lefebvre 38) as such by city planners and politicians. Because of this and the fact that it is located on one of the highest natural points in Manhattan, it is often referred to as the "Academic Acropolis" (cf. Johnson & Bradley 93) of New York. The geographical height of the area and its planned academic architecture create a physically perceivable materialization of power that limits Fogg's mobility. Hence, Morningside Heights exemplifies how abstract representations of space are able to initiate spatial change in concrete, physical reality (cf. Guelf 160). Given Fogg's current condition, this space of academia and its connotation of rationality reveal his irrational decision to sink into poverty and despair without asking for help.

While the influence of the representation of space is only implicitly visible in the text, it is different with the prevalent spatial practice, which is informed by the principles of modern capitalism. Remembering the spatial practice in this area, which is devoted to learning and studying, Fogg imagines meeting friends, fellow students and professors. He fears them to recognize his unhealthy bodily condition and to consider him odd. The words, "I did not have the courage to withstand the looks they would give me, the stares, the mystified second glances," (Auster 49f) reveal his dread to be rejected and his fear of feeling embarrassed. Moreover, he states that he is "horrified by the thought of having to talk to any of them," probably because this would force him to explain his actually unjustifiable, irrational behavior to a sophisticated person and would therefore intensify his feeling of shame (cf. ibid. 50). Walking through Morningside Heights as an ostensibly undernourished and homeless person contradicts the spatial practice called for and obeyed by other people (especially students and professors) in this area. Obviously, for Marco the space of higher education which is attributed by the common spatial practice to Morningside Heights and in which he used to move without second thoughts and in accordance with the plans of city builders and politicians, has acquired a new and threatening meaning which in this case—instead of making him try to "change and appropriate it" through his "imagination" (Lefebvre, Prudction 39)—makes him avoid it and renders this area as an 'unlivable,' a taboo place in New York. Fogg feels forced to head south, away from this neighborhood and Upper Broadway (Auster 50). Thus, his use of and movement in the area is affected by the way it is conceived by city planners and the way it is perceived and used by the general public. Therefore this space is lived differently, or rather not lived anymore by Fogg himself.


1 In this essay I use the term "spaces of representation" instead of "representational spaces" as a translation of the French original "les espaces de représentation" because it is, as Elden argues, generally regarded as a more adequate (cf. Understanding 206n). That is why in this regard the choice of words deviates from Nicholson-Smith's translation of Lefebvre's La Production de l'espace from 1974.

2 Fogg's reading of "Moonlight" is very similar to Auster's own interpretation of the same painting, which he published in an article for Art News in 1987 (cf. Weisenburger 138).

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Progress through Spatial Conflicts. An Application of Henri Lefebvre's "The Production of Space" to Paul Auster's "Moon Palace"
Ruhr-University of Bochum  (American Studies)
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Hans Niehues (Author), 2015, Progress through Spatial Conflicts. An Application of Henri Lefebvre's "The Production of Space" to Paul Auster's "Moon Palace", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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