In my opinion, the value of various schools of theory and philosophy, especially those of the 19th and 20th centuries (such as Marxism and psychoanalysis) is their aim to demystify the workings of daily life, of desire, of government and money, and ways of thinking.  Whether or not one agrees with them, at their best, works of theory and philosophy make one stop and think, to step outside and to observe, how people live.  This is the effect of good poetry and literature, too:  to jar one’s thoughts or command one’s attention, revealing or portraying things in a different light, with unfamiliar words, so that one leaves that reading with a new appreciation of or attention to something that one formerly took for granted.

In the class I’m auditing this semester, we’re reading some work by a Marxist critic named Henri LeFebvre, particularly his work on “the production of space.”  While I am not a Marxist,  I do see the value of excavating our systems of value, of finding the often-unnoticed assumptions or faults in such major systems as our modern economy in order to, it is hoped, rectify those.  LeFebvre’s point was that “space” (the spaces in which we live and move and work) are not just empty, innocent milieus or environments but, rather, that they are constructed (usually by an unseen power or corporation) to have certain effects on the people who move about or inhabit them.   One of LeFebvre’s big issues was, as he argued, the ways that space is divided up into parcels by the Powers That Be in order that they might be sold and arranged for profit.  One example is a suburban development, the worst being those that destroy natural habitats (of course) but also those that provide various “model homes” which give consumers a (false) sense of freedom of choice, when really they’re being corralled like cattle into certain (unsociable) living conditions, gleefully trading their money for a plot of land and a preconstructed, conventional home and making Big Development all the richer.

What I like about LeFebvre’s work (though I disagree with much of his method and focus) is the way in which it does make me stop and think about the way my life is structured and organized and directed in ways that I never notice and in ways that sometimes are the opposite of life-giving.  His work reminded me of an exercise I’ve had my students perform before, in which they select a human-made space (a public park, a building or room) and step back a bit, in order to observe and describe both its components and arrangement AND the way they feel IN that space:  for example, how does one feel (or how is one supposed to feel) walking into a giant cathedral? a library?  a doctor’s office?  a coffee shop?  the Lincoln Memorial?  a classroom?  Why does it matter how people are encouraged to position themselves in a space, where their attention is directed, how they are meant to behave or speak or feel?  (It’s a lot like generic conventions in writing– one wouldn’t use the same diction, tone, and vocabulary in a thank-you not to one’s grandmother that one would in, say, an email to a friend about a wild Saturday night or in a formal academic essay.)  It’s interesting to think about what the makers of a space wanted to do with that space, how they influence the feelings and perspective of their visitors.

Julia Reinhard Lupton is a really cool scholar of Renaissance literature who also blogs, with her twin sister, about contemporary design.  She and her sister co-wrote a book called Design Your Life:  The Pleasures and Perils of Everyday Things which is described thus:

Design Your Life is a series of irreverent and realistic snapshots about objects and how we interact with them. By leading design thinker Ellen Lupton and her twin sister Julia Lupton, it shows how design is about much more than what’s bought at high-end stores or the modern look at IKEA. Design is critical thinking: a way to look at the world and wonder why things work, and why they don’t.

The authors train their critical focus on various household objects, spaces, and items of clothing in a lighthearted attempt to demystify the ways that objects and spaces influence and even control us.  One chapter looks at a blender, discussing the ways that the various buttons, with their descriptors (puree, chop, liquefy) both help us to understand how something works and serve to confuse us, to be less than intuitive.

Both of these studies, on space and on things, really fascinate me and have really made me step back and think about what I otherwise take for granted.  It also helps me to laugh at our human institutions, at the ways spaces and things make us feel accomplished, safe, smart as well as confused, dumb, and needy.