Reflections on Space as a Key Word by David Harvey
© 2013 by Lili Bernard
British-born, social theorist-geographer David Harvey is a distinguished professor of anthropology in my alma mater, City University of New York. He is among the plethora of heralded White Male European Marxian theorists around whom the pedagogy of academic art institutions focuses.
Harvey’s text, Space as a key word, is of particular interest to me. It illuminates the customary omission, in White male theorizing, of non-European historical happenings. The text also serves as an example of the bombastic aggrandizement of White males, in which the Eurocentric philosophies, which trump art academia, indulge. The text inadvertently illustrates the subconscious racism and passive misogyny (or at the very least male chauvinism) perpetuated by the rhetoric of these well-meaning, socially conscious White male European Marxian theorists. Finally, Spaces as a key word serves as an example of how the didactic intellectualism of such social theorists myopically denies the role and existence of spirituality in the constructs of society.
And yet, despite such shortcomings as these, which I have read over and over again, in the plethora of assigned writings by White Male European Marxian theorists; we art students are made to spend hours, days and semesters mulling over the information which has very little (if anything) to do with art making. The pedagogy which I have witnessed in art theory classes is one in which such theorizing is conveyed as truth. Seldom are we encouraged to critically scrutinize the validity or objectivity of these self-aggrandizing White Male European theorists, whose lofty opinions and warped perspective provide the foundation for the intellectual criticality of art school.
I will take on my claims of the problems in Harvey’s Space as key word, one by one, and will substantiate them with examples which I will site from the writing.
Harvey’s Space as a Key word Serving as an Example of Historical Omission
David Harvey, touts himself as a truth seeker and a truth speaker, as one who is not duped by the misinformation of capitalist principalities. I saw this tendency of his (on YouTube) in a lecture he presented on Space, Place and Time in 2008 at my other alma mater, Cornell University. In his discourse, Harvey presents himself as harboring keen insights into the “general mythologies” of (the civil rights era of) 1968. He shares his concerns for the collective rights of laborers, gay men and women, Blacks and other disenfranchised groups. He praises the work of the Right to the City Alliance in the US , which is modeled after the right to the city slogan and ideology of French Marxian theorist Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991). He lauds the organization’s stance against gentrification and criticizes capitalists for their practice of misinformation as a fear-quelling control tactic upon the masses.
In Space as a key word, Harvey reiterates the same concerns for truth and justice. In the middle of the second paragraph on page 134, Harvey voices his intolerance of capitalist systematic misinformation and revisionist history. He writes, “Will we get to know that the Reagan administration played a key role in creating and supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan . . . . and that Osama bin Laden turned from being an ally of the US into an enemy, because the US support for the corrupt regime of Saudi Arabia?” David Harvey characteristically puts on the cape of Truth Speaker, as one committed to fighting corruption by revealing, in his talks and writing, the warped misperceptions which plague and alienate society.
But could David Harvey be himself an accomplice of misinformation or, at the very least, omission history? On the bottom of page 121 in Space as a key word. Harvey writes, “The relative notion of space is mainly associated with the name of Einstein and the non-Euclidean geometries that began to be constructed most systematically in the 19th century.”
I give props to Einstein for his theory of relativity and his discovery of the dilation of space and time, known as Spacetime. However, if non-Euclidean (hyperbolic) geometry really did “begin to be constructed most systematically in the 19th century;” what role did the Egyptians’ geometric discoveries, in 3,700 BC, play in the understanding of hyperbolic axioms 4,000 years later? I don’t know. I will have to ask my brother who is a physicist. All I know is that the Egyptians employed highly sophisticated geometric equations to construct pyramids which have withstood the test of time for more than 5,000 years. Why then not site or credit the Egyptians for the space which their mathematical ingenuity occupied in the realm of time? Must we always read works which herald only European accomplishments?
Aggrandizement of White Males and Perpetuation of Subconscious Racism and Misogyny
In Space as a key word, Harvey credits White European males with associations which others, outside of the European mindset, may perceive as imaginary. For example he writes, “The relational concept of space is most often associated with the name of Leibniz.” Most often? According to whom? Certainly non-Europeans who have never heard of Leibnitz have pondered relational concepts of space for generations. But Harvey is not merely talking about space as it relates to time. He is not talking about the theory of relativity here. He is talking about the Laws of Continuity and Homogeneity which Leibnitz coined, about infinitesimals, about mathematics, as understood by White European men. What on earth does the aggrandizing of White Male European mathematicians have to do with our art creation?
In reading Space as a key word, an impressionable reader could easily be swayed into erroneously concluding that only White male Europeans have had a grasp on the concept of space as it relates to time, that they are the pioneers of critical thought. Throughout the text, Harvey widely praises White male European theorists, mathematicians, scientists and philosophers, particularly those of Germanic ancestry. He generously gives credit to Baruch Spinoza (Dutch 1632 – 1677), Gottfried Leibniz (German 1646-1716), Leonhard Euler (Swiss 1707-1783), Immanuel Kant (German 1724-1804), Carl Gauss (German 1777-1855), Ernst Cassirer (German 1874-1945), Albert Einstein (German 1879-1955), Gyorgy Lukacs (Hungarian 1885-1971) and Karl Wittfogel (German 1896-1988). Why has Harvey not made space in his writing for non-European scientists, mathematicians, theorists and philosophers? Assuredly there are many who have grappled with notions of time and space.
Harvey relates space-time with the geographical functions of cities. Here he could have sited the African-American mathematician-astronomer Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806), who made a clock out of wood that accurately kept time for more than 40 years. Banneker precisely predicted the dates of solar-eclipses, which he published in an almanac, along with sophisticated astronomical charts he constructed. He was appointed by President George Washington to survey the boundaries for the building of the City of Washington DC.
The Perpetuation of Subconscious Racism and Misogyny (or at the very least Male Chauvinism) in Harvey ’s Rhetoric
Harvey does not mention any non-White scientists, let alone any Black scientist. In fact, the only Black person he mentions is the sociologist W.E.B. Dubois (1868-1963). When he mentions Dubois he writes, “Dubois long ago attempted to address this” (political subjectivity and consciousness). “Attempted.” Dubois “attempted to address.” He did not “address,” according to Harvey. He only “attempted to.” Such subconscious derisive rhetoric with regard to the achievement of Black people subliminally perpetuates racism.
In contrast to Dubois’ “attempt” at addressing an issue, Harvey states the accomplishments of White European males in the affirmative: Here are some examples:
“When Gauss first established the rules . . . he also affirmed Euler’s assertion . . . “ (top of page 122.
“Cassirer, for example, sets up a tripartite division of modes of human special experience” (bottom of page 129)
“Lefebvre (almost certainly drawing upon Cassirer) constructs his own distinctive tripartite division of material space.” ( middle-bottom of page 130)
“Don Mitchell perceptively observes” (bottom of 146) and . . .
“Mitchell correctly insists” (top of 147)
(Don Mitchell is a White Male American cultural geographer)
And so on. Dubois, the only Black intellectual mentioned in Harvey ’s text is also the only one whose accomplishments are described as a mere attempt, not a definitive. But at least Harvey mentions one Black person in the hordes of White People, mostly European men, who dominate the text. There is no mention of any intellectuals of Asian, Indian, Arabic or indigenous persuasion.
When Harvey mentioned non-Euclidian geometry, he could have sited Srinivasa Ramanujan (India 1887 – 1920), a mathematician whose research contributed significantly to number theory and infinite series, which speak of time and space. He could have mentioned the Indian physicist , C.V. Raman (1888 – 1970) who won the Nobel Prize in 1930.
Neither does Harvey mention any female scientists. When writing on Einstein’s theory of relativity he could have mentioned physicist-chemist Marie Curie (Poland 1867-1934) who pioneered research on radioactivity and was the only person to ever win a Noble Prize in multiple sciences.
The absence, in Harvey ’s text, of the citing of accomplishments of women, with regard to space and time, can be viewed as a form of passive misogyny, a denial of the existence of female intellectualism. At the very least, it can be viewed as chauvinistic.
The only two females Harvey does mention, however, are both White. One is contemporary American video artist Judith Barry. The other is American philosopher Susanne Langer (1895-1985) whose parents were German.
Why, in the writings of socially conscious Marxian theorist like Harvey, who trumpet concerns for social justice, is there no space made for Black women theorists such as bell hooks or Black male philosophers such as Frantz Fanon? Or Asian philosophers such Confucius? Or preeminent thinkers and doers such as Mahatma Gandhi who gave his life in a fight against capitalism and corruption? Is it because these people believed in God? No. The majority of White European historical figures whom Harvey cites were believers in God. I am left to conclude that the omission of such great thinkers in Harvey ’s writing is a result of their ethnicity.
The answer for the reason behind the elitist and racist tendencies of Marxian theorists is found on the bottom of page 139 of Harvey ’s Space as a key word. Harvey sites that Marx “pled with Cabet not to take his communist-minded followers to the new world.” According to Harvey , Marx advised Cabet to “stay as good communists in Europe and fight through the revolutionary transformation in that space.” Why not introduce communism into the New World? Would such a progressive philosophy be beyond the comprehension of the indigenous savages and masses of kidnapped Black folk who inhabit the islands? Would the Natives and Negroes in their ignorance corrupt the goodness of communism and turn it into fascism as have so many others? For the record, Fidel Castro, one of the most notorious New World communist-turned tyrannical dictators, is a White man. I say “tyrannical,” because my family and I suffered tremendous injustices and racism as Afro-Cubans living on the island under Castro’s rule. Or perhaps Marx feared that if the Natives and Negroes were armed with the philosophy and powerful rhetoric of communism, they would rise up and conquer their White subjugators.
It’s questionable whether Karl Marx really cared for the welfare of all oppressed people, when he thought too little of New World Natives and Negroes to arm them with a manifesto which might incite slave rebellions on territories teaming with oppressed Black and Brown folk, rebellions which could serve as catalysts for full-blown revolutions against slavery. I see Marx’s purported reason for not introducing communism into the New World, despite the urging of his cohort, Cabet, as an excuse. Marx issued his manifesto in 1848, at the height of slavery. Surely the oppression of millions of enslaved folk must have concerned Marx enough to consider arming them with the powerful “truth” of communism. Or was Karl Marx talking out of both sides of a duplicitous mouth, when he told his cohorts to “stay as good communists in Europe and fight through the revolutionary transformation in that space?” Did Karl Marx’s concern for justice not extend to those across the seas? His writings imply that he was concerned.
In Marx’s 1861 article, “The Civil War in North America,” he criticizes the slave-owning oligarchy of the U.S. He writes, “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.” But what are we to make of the letters between Marx and his cohort Engle which ring with racist undertones? In an 1865 letter from Engles to Marx, Engles wrote “The niggers will probably turn into small squatters as in Jamaica.” Squatters? Why not doctors, lawyers, scientists, educators, philosophers, and theorists? And what are we to make of the letter from Marx to Engle, in 1862, wherein Marx references his socialist political competitor, Ferdinand Lassalle, in the following racist manner?
“It is now completely clear to me that he, as is proved by his cranial formation and his hair, descends from the Negroes from Egypt, assuming that his mother or grandmother had not interbred with a nigger. Now this union of Judaism and Germanism with a basic Negro substance must produce a peculiar product. The obtrusiveness of the fellow is also nigger-like.”
“Cranial formation?” “Obtrusiveness?” Come on now! This came from the pen of Mr. Karl-One-Race-Only-The-Human-Race-Marx? Really? Really.
Whether or not Karl Marx and his cohorts were racists, or wrote like racists in private letters to one another, or at the very least were subconsciously racist, is a topic for another paper. The focus of this paper is to site David Harvey’s rhetoric as an example of the subconscious racism and boastful atheism of the White Male Theoretical Canon which dominates art school pedagogy.
My favorite part of Harvey ’s writing was the following, when he reflected on his thoughts during a lecture he gave:
“I find myself thinking while talking that everything we are doing in this room is stupid and trivial. . . . Why aren’t we out there bringing the government down?” (bottom of page 127)
Talk is cheap. Words can sometimes indeed be trivial. Action is courageous.
Harvey continues, “ . . . someone in the front row nods off.”
That would be me, bored out of my wits, reading or listening to lop-sided elitist Eurocentric theory that in no way benefits or informs my art practice. What is the point in not expanding the syllabus to encompass theoretical writings by women and people of color, to reflect the real demographics and diverse mindset of the world in which we live? Why not incorporate into the curriculum the theoretical writings of accomplished non-White male thinkers such as bell hooks, Franz Fanon, Adrian Piper, Henry Louis Gates, Edward Said, Reneé Green, Oqwui Owenze, Amalia Mesa Baines, Carlos Moore, Helene Cixous, Judith Butler and on and on and on? Why not? I don’t get it. Are these theorists not contemporary? Does the Academy want us to think that they don’t exist? Or is it simply a byproduct of the resistant stain of racism and White Male dominance in which art academia continues to bask?
Didactic Intellectualism Myopically Denying the Role and Existence of Spirituality in the Constructs of Society
There are several places in Harvey ’s writing where the rhetoric is aloofly didactic. Here is one such example:
“The answer is quite simply that there are certain topics, such as the political role of collective memories in urban processes that can only be approached in this way.” (second paragraph on page 125)
Says who? This statement sounds eerily fascist, fascism being the natural evolution of Marxist regimes, as history has proven.
Here’s another didactic statement: “We must therefore focus on the relationality of space-time, rather than of space in isolation.”
Says who? Why must we focus space on its relation to time? Why can we not view space as isolated? Just because Einstein’s theory of relativity says so? Some spiritualist would argue that space exists in the complete absence of time.
The mention and exploration of spirit and soul is absent in the writings of Marxian theorists, such as Harvey . It is not, however, absent in the writings of the agnostic Albert Einstein upon whom Harvey naturally centers much of his writing, concerning time-space.
Here are some quotes of Albert Einstein which speak of the spirit and relate to Harvey ’s text:
“The further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge.”
“Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the Gods.”
“A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive.“
“The finest emotion of which we are capable is the mystic emotion. Herein lays the germ of all art and all true science. Anyone to whom this feeling is alien, who is no longer capable of wonderment and lives in a state of fear is a dead man. To know that what is impenetrable for us really exists and manifests itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, whose gross forms alone are intelligible to our poor faculties – this knowledge, this feeling … that is the core of the true religious sentiment. In this sense, and in this sense alone, I rank myself among profoundly religious men.”
It is no wonder that Harvey, in his atheistic Marxian rhetoric, made no mention of Albert Einstein’s spiritual slant.