A French version of this interview was originally published at http://revueperiode.net/gramsci-geographe-entretien-avec-stefan-kipfer/
- Your research interests include a recurrent focus on space, specifically urban questions as well as the spatial organization of relations of exploitation and domination. Theoretically, you mobilize the works of Henri Lefebvre and Frantz Fanon, but you are also interested in Gramsci’s take on, for example, urbanity and rurality. How do you see the relevance of Gramsci’s analyses for geographical concerns today?
I started reading Gramsci in 1990 just before turning to urban research and the debates around ‘radical geography’ that were still in full swing then. Broadly speaking, these debates tackled two problematic treatments of space in social theory: the reduction of space to a strictly passive, ‘empty’ container of history, and, in turn, the elevation of space to historically invariant determinant of social life. Instead, a key lesson in these debates was to discuss space dialectically, as a product of history and an active historical force. These debates quickly pushed me to return to Gramsci and consider something that a few geographically minded intellectuals had considered here and there but that was then still an unusual topic for the Gramscians amongst my colleagues: the place of space in Gramsci’s particular strand of Marxism.
One of the most important questions in Gramsci’s philosophy of praxis (then and now) is the issue of historicism, which Gramsci affirmed in a peculiar way to describe one crucial aspect of his historical materialist method. A few have pointed out that the conceptions of time and history which informed Gramsci’s historicism are not to be confused with those that shape other forms of historicism, notably Hegel’s and Ranke’s. Among the first to do so in English was Esteve Morera, who wrote a book on the subject in 1990. However, at the time, it was not uncommon (even among Gramscians) to sidestep geographical questions or treat space as the philosophical counterpart of time. I sometimes felt that on this matter, not much had changed since the 1970s when the famous exchange between Immanuel Wallerstein (and his ‘spatial’ conception of capitalism as a world system) and Ernesto Laclau (and his ‘historical’ conception of capitalism as a mode of production) unnecessarily pitted space against time, geography against history.
Even just a cursory reading shows that Gramsci’s writing was characterized by a profound geographical as well as historical sensibility. My sense was and is that both sensibilities are integral to his method. Forging a path a Marx himself had laid out, Gramsci developed his main concepts (from language and folklore to intellectuals and politics) through an intimate reading of historical moments and geographical situations. ‘Space’ for Gramsci was never just contextual backdrop or singular material condition (let alone a symbol of historical stasis). As condition and product of history, geography is an active force of the multiple rhythms that make up historical time. In turn, Gramsci treated space and scale relationally, showing the mutual imbrication and historical co-constitution of world, nation, region, city and country.
Key in this context is the idea that spatial forms are, among other things, subjects of struggle as well as ‘ingredients’ in political projects, as it were. It is well known (as Panagiotis Sotiris has reminded us most recently) that Gramsci treated the national scale not as a given entity (let alone an ethnocultural or historical essence) but an open-ended field of struggle and a strategic construction site. Gramsci insisted that the national-popular aspect of revolutionary politics, which is not to be confused with nationalism, must be developed in constant interaction with equally open-ended internationalist horizons.
Gramsci made similar points about city and country. Observing debates among fascist intellectuals such as Curzio Malaparte, he saw that claims to urbanity and rurality do not simply express given geographical realities. They can help form historic blocs. Compare Gramsci’s insight, which considered politics as an active force, to contemporary debates in electoral geography, which have a tendency to read right populist and neo-fascism passively, as mere reflections of given settlement forms defined by national statistical offices: suburb, periurb, rural space or small to medium sized town. Exemplified in France by the work of Christophe Guilluy, among others, such spatially determinist readings of the Front National actually corroborate Gramsci’s point. In their passive conception of politics, intellectuals like Guilluy naturalize, and thus lend effective support to frontist political claims by treating small towns, agricultural areas and periurban zones as embodiments of the ‘autochtonous’ people of France and their seemingly spontaneous and inevitable xenophobic impulses.
- What does a Gramscian reading of Lefebvre’s work add to Lefebvre scholarship? In what ways did Lefebvre try to urbanize the question of hegemony ?
Antonio Gramsci was not one of the primary figures in Lefebvre’s intellectual universe. But in various parts of his work, Henri Lefebvre presented us with explicit textual invitations to see his own contributions in a Gramscian light. In the opening pages of the Production of Space, for example, he established the hypothesis that bourgeois hegemony does not leave space untouched, as it were, thus suggesting that spatial organization represents a crucial element in the organization of political rule. This insight systematized the earlier conclusion of The Urban Revolution, where Lefebvre stressed the fact that ‘urbanisme’, and the specialized spatial sciences associated with it have the potential to sustain bourgeois rule by disorganizing opposition and promoting subaltern passivity.