Friday, September 8, 2006

Telling stories about pervasive computing and locative media through Lefebvre's projective-retrojective method

In other news, I submitted two chapters to Rob--one on methodology. Over pancakes and eggs this morning, I explained how my blog analysis (part auto-ethnography, part historical narrative) focusses on how I moved back-and-forth between how sociologists understand concepts like 'public' or 'place,' and how they are mobilised by technologists, designers and artist researchers. A sort of "we say..." and "they say..." dialogue, or iterative design for sociology and anthropology. My blog archives allowed me to trace my own methodological and interpretive trajectories, as well as the conversations, workshops, conferences, etc. that helped me publically work through--refine and modify--my thinking. The historical lines of flight present in my blog also offer a glimpse at some of the situations, events and discourses that have shaped the fields of pervasive computing over the past four or five years of my research.

So Rob told me about a method originally proposed by Lefebvre, and adapted by Sartre, that seems to have fallen into obscurity not least because it has a name that just wasn't very catchy: "projective-retrojective" (sometimes translated as the "progressive-regressive method"). As he explains in Lefebvre, Love and Struggle (pp.132-133) Lefebvre's method consists of three steps or movements:

1. descriptive observation informed by experience and general theory;
2. analytico-retrojective analysis comparing back historically to the known origins of other cases;
3. historico-progressive study of the genesis of structures, reconstructing the projection of trends to provide an explanatory framework for the present.

[...]

The retrojective moment (sometimes incorrectly referred to as the 'regressive moment') 'combines geneaological (returning to the emergence of a concept and exploring its concrete affiliations, detours and associations) and historico-genetic procedures (abstract and total, likened to the general history of society and philosophy). Progression refers to the opposite move, that of beginning with the present and evaluating what is possible and impossible in the future' (Kofman and Lebas 1996; Lefebvre 1980b)

[...]

In The Production of Space, he describes this method as taking as its starting point the realities of the present: 'the forward leap of productive forces, and the new technical and scientific capacity to transform natural space so radically that it threatens nature itself. . . . The production of space, having attained the conceptual and linguistic level, acts retroactively upon the last, disclosing aspects and moments of it hitherto uncomprehended. The past appears in a different light, and hence the process whereby the past becomes the present also takes on another aspect' (1991:65). Debord, however, best grasped the principle: the 'empty repetitions of modern life, of work and spectacle could be 'detourned' - hijacked - into the creation of situations, into abstract forms that could be infused with unlimited content' - that is, with a utopian, projective inspiration to action (Marcus 1989:238)."

Okay, that last paragraph kills me. So is it this hijacking that is so important to the toolkit of critical theory? (Is this different from poaching?) Is it the "projective inspiration to action" that matters? Kofman and Lebas' description above seemed so simple: I start by describing today's techo-social processes and artefacts, trace their positions and movements, relate that back to the historical concerns of sociology and STS, and then return to the (newly constituted) present to evaluate what is possible and impossible in the future. Am I missing something? Is this sort of spatio-temporal dialectics not the important bit? Is it not the moving back-and-forth between the retrojective and the projective that offers hope? Or am I misunderstanding?

This afternoon I also looked at Eric Margolis' article on reflexive video ethnography, in which he discusses the process of editing as alternately regressive and progressive: "In the regressive moment transcripts became the basis of the script. They were analyzed, cut apart, and organized topically . . . The progressive moment was the attempt to produce synthesis." This process is quite similar to the one I've used in my analysis and writing, but it seems to map better onto Sartre than Lefebvre, and now I'm confused.

Sartre's primary contribution to Lefebvre's method seems to be a greater focus on phenomenology and the relations between subjects and objects, which allows means of articulating (reflexively) how the present is generated by alternately looking backwards and forwards. But how does that differ from Kofman and Lebas' explanation of Lefebvre? Does it ultimately provide the space I need to allow for non-human actors in my account? Does Lefebvre's version prevent or discourage that?

After dinner conversation note to self:

Yes, yes, it's all old school dialectics and hermeneutics, but Sartre needed a way to balance that with his existentialism and so there might be something worth pursuing here regarding phenomenology as method--"describe don't theorise" as Lefebvre's first move and Sartre's last. Also, follow-up on this reference:

As George Lichtheim noted, “Sartre’s humans don’t cooperate, they are thrown together or, as he put it, 'serialised.' ... Thus human nature is shown by a state of affairs which bears a marked resemblance to a concentration camp.” (ref)

3 Comments:

Anonymous glen said...

great thought-provoking post on method!

i think lefebvre's method looks like something most scholars end up doing, doesn't it?? like i have done almost the exact movement in trying to understand how automotive technologies have come to be 'articulated' with meaning and affect in their current arrangement. to do this i have traced back through the archive using a genealogical method.

the big difference (esp from phenomenology although i've not read too much sartre) is that i am interested in events and series of events that are produced through their differential repetition.

so firstly, I would suggest there are no origins as such only thresholds of familiarity as the heterogeneous elements in event-type arrangements (ie assemblages) cohere together, so retrojection would map becomings and 'lines of flight'

second, as Deleuze writes 'structure is a machine for producing events' and Foucault writes 'the body is the inscribed surface of events (traced by language and dissolved by ideas)'; what I attempt to figure out is the durability of events from structure and on the body (where structure and body are also events) in terms the difference produced in the repetition of events.

third, contra SI humanism, i don't privilege particular 'moments' in this analysis. The aesthetic capacity of the human psyche is not a good measure of durability(?!?!).

12:09  
Blogger Phil said...

A grumpy pro-situ writes:

Ignoring anything that Greil Marcus says about Guy Debord or the situationists would be a good start. (Apart from anything else 'divert' is a perfectly good English equivalent of 'detourner'.)

As for what Lefebvre was actually saying, who knows? He was a genius, but he did tend to put grand hand-waving gestures where his conclusions should have been - I think it's something in the Parisian water...

21:29  
Anonymous anne said...

glen - exactly, it's classic hermeneutics and dialectics, but there's something about lefebvre's social, spatial and temporal dialectics that is special as a series of movements, or as *sociological* method (which i am obliged to engage).

so where does this meet or cross the deleuzian approach? if we're going to talk origin, then i would normally take the route of simondon's individuation where we have multiple potentials and becomings. i see this as compatible with the critical opening that rob attributes to lefebvre and debord, and with d&g's lines of flight.

but i think i actually do want to privilege particular moments: i need to critically evaluate their potentials for my social, political and ethical project. i have some philosophical issues with humanism-at-large, but i'm all over lefebvre's committment to revolution and the oeuvre of a fully lived life.

phil - lefebvre was an eccentric who dictated his texts to lovers and hardly edited them ;) but i disagree that he "put grand hand-waving gestures where his conclusions should have been." is it not this opening that allows for the coming dance dance revolution?

01:20  

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