Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Some Considerations of "Absolute Space" and Sacred Spacetime

In my work of developing a spatiotemporal approach or a "poetics" of spacetime, I have been reading through Henri Lefebvre's Production of Space. For the most part, Lefebvre privileges spatial over temporal dimensions, but, in his defense, he claims he does so because this is a tendency of capitalist societies--privileging of space and the subordination of time is a quality of what he is studying. Nonetheless, in so doing he does show a certain sensitivity to time's relationship to space and how this relationship shifts from society to society, or, perhaps more accurately, from mode of production to mode of production.

One aspect of space he considers is "absolute space," and it is his comments on this type of space I would like to use as a jumping off point in developing an understanding of sacred spacetime. He writes:

Considered in itself--"absolutely"--absolute space is located nowhere. It has no place because it embodies all places, and has a strictly symbolic existence. This is what makes it similar to the fictitious/real space of language, and of that mental space, magically (imaginarily) cut off from the spatial realm, where the consciousness of the 'subject'--or 'self-consciousness'--takes form. Absolute space is always at the disposal of priestly castes. It consecrates, and consecration metaphysically identifies any space with fundamentally holy space: the space of a sanctuary is absolute space, even in the smallest temple or the most unpretentious village church. The space of tombs, for its part, unless it contains a god or a monarch, is analogous merely to the spaces of birth, death or oblivion. Absolute space, being by definition religious as well as political, implies the existence of religious institutions which subject it to the two major mechanisms of identification and imitation. These mental categories, destined to become those of imagination and reflective thought, first appear as spatial forms. The material extension of absolute space occurs by virtue of these processes, to the benefit of priestly castes and the political power they exercise or serve.
(Henri Lefebvre, Production of Space, 236-7; trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith; emphases original)

The first thing to consider is that absolute space differs from abstract space. Absolute space is not abstract, geometrical (Euclidean) space. The question is how is absolute space both everywhere and nowhere? Is it what consecrates as Lefebvre claims, or is it what is consecrated? Consecration--the creation of holy space--indicates a degree of separation and if there is separation and such differentiation, it cannot be everywhere in fact. Although it can be anywhere and everywhere in potential in the sense that consecration of space could theoretically occur to any space, turning any space into absolute/sacred/holy space. It is in this sense that, Lefebvre next says, it is "ritually affixable":

Being ritually affixable to any place and hence also detachable therefrom, the characteristic "absolute" requires an identifying mark. It therefore generates forms, and forms accommodate it. Such forms are microcosms of the universe: a square (the mandala), a circle or sphere, a triangle, a rational volume occupied by a divine principle, a cross, and so on.
(ibid., 237)

The "identifying mark" is its differentiation. Its marks are, indeed, its symbolic elements--they are the elements upon which meaning and, perhaps, a surplus of meaning is imputed. As such, it can be affixed to any place, but cannot be all places at once, except insofar as it contains all places. In this consideration, therefore, absolute space is the macrocosm. It consecrates, if we give absolute space agency as it seems Lefebvre does (which seems problematic to me), other spaces to become absolute spaces as well as microcosms. Thus the village temple, church, synagogue, mosque, etc., are microcosms that mirror the macrocosm. But, as the first paragraph quoted emphasizes, it is not just by imitation of the macrocosm that the microcosm becomes absolute space, it is also by identification. The macrocosm that contains the microcosm is fully present in the microcosm contained within it. So, although one might say that absolute space is everywhere insofar as it contains all space, on the other hand it is only accessible through the differentiated, marked spaces that are in some way holy. This means that we have to move a step beyond Lefebvre. He has suggested three relationships between macrocosmic (my word) absolute space and microcosmic absolute space: (1) the first consecrates the second; (2) the second imitates the first; and (3) the second identifies with the first. But imitation and identification are not quite enough to explain the relations of the two and encompass the claims that absolute space is everywhere and nowhere. Beyond imitation and due to identification, these differentiated, marked microcosms must also participate in the macrocosmic space.

I would contend, moreover, that these maneuvers pertain to time: we might say something about "absolute" time (which to me sounds like a nice substitution for "eternity") and absolute time's consecration of a marked time (through liturgies, rituals, etc.) and marked time's imitation and identification with absolute time, which, moreover, participates in absolute time. It is something that is again "ritually affixed." But this ritual affixation, moreover, suggests something else: it is a moment, an event, that concurrently organizes or coordinates this marked time with the marked space. Indeed, once we take agency away from "absolute" space and/or time, it give it to the ritual actors--the "priestly castes," perhaps--through the ritual actors' bodily movements and manipulations (and movement is where space and time coincide since one always moves through space and time together) the differentiations and relative sacrality of the entire spatiotemporal environment are created (or, in Lefebvre's terms, produced and reproduced).

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