(The myth of) the science of social space

I’ve just published a review of Jeanne Haffner’s lucid and interesting The View from Above: The Science of Social Space (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013). It’s in the current issue of French Studies, accessible here.

An excerpt:

The myth of social space was invoked in France by Marxists as well as by conservatives, city commissioners, and professors. Utopian in the equilibrium it implied, ‘social space’ referred to ‘space abstracted beyond the chaos of the ground but not divorced from it; not solely geographical or social, it was […] a spatialization of complex social and economic relationships within a particular urban environment’ (p. 82).

The View From Above establishes extremely valuable connections between the high modernist use of aerial photography detailed in the research of scholars such as Paula Amad, and the late modernist disillusionment with aerial photography exemplified by Guy Debord’s texts and films during and after his participation in the Situationist International. It represents a continued invitation to contemplate our view of the city and our right to it.

Views from above in A Sixth Part of the World and The Eleventh Year

I’ve recently submitted an article examining the aerial view as a visual modality. Two more film fragments by Vertov that have inspired me to think further on the subject:

The opening of A Sixth Part of the World (1926), in which Vertov juxtaposes omniscient vision from above, the slicing legs of foxtrotters, the powerful magnet of a construction crane and the small mole on the back of a bourgeois neck.

Another aerial view from the ending of The Eleventh Year (1928), where the technological advancements of Soviet aviation link Russia to its Chinese comrades via sight and flight.

This last sequence, with its views from below, from above, and from beside a soaring plane reminds me of Paula Amad’s excellent essay published last year in History of Photography, “From God’s Eye to Camera Eye: Aerial Photography’s Post-humanist and Neo-humanist Visions of the World.” Amad thoughtfully takes on the dialectic between abstracted knowledge in views from above and embodied knowledge in views from below, arguing for a more fluid, less dogmatic understanding of our encounters with this practice of looking.