The Past & Present Reading Group has reengaged its spatial turn since completing Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space; Doreen Massey, Spatial Divisions of Labour; and Jennifer Robinson, Ordinary Cities. It has done so also by travelling outside the Anglophone and European scholarly world to expand the horizons of spatial theory within Latin America. Hence the recent completion of Milton Santos, The Nature of Space, translated by Brenda Baletti (2021).
First published in 1996 in Portuguese, then translated into Spanish in 2000, The Nature of Space is ambitious. If we saw in Lefebvre’s approach a highly philosophical effort, in Massey’s work an intensive exercise rooted in economic geography, and in Robinson’s book a critique of the hierarchical indexing of cities then, in Santos, we experience nothing less than a recrafting of geographical studies itself. This is so on two counts. First, in terms of how geography can define its object of study—space. Second, with reference to how space is linked with ‘a particular state of techniques’ and how this is in tension with the challenges presented by globalisation at the end of the twentieth-century. These issues emerge as Santos develops a sophisticated theoretical framework that tries to produce a ‘system of ideas that can serve as a point of departure for a descriptive and interpretive system of geography’. However, the result sometimes produces a collection of reflections that are neither rooted in historical analysis nor empirical examples that could allow the reader to understand how he arrives at a particular conceptualisation. In this sense, we can see an effort to produce a provocative-reflexive text about space as an object of study for geography as a discipline.
This work is probably best situated as part an expansionary process extending beyond Santos’ earlier historical materialist scholarship. Thus, The Nature of Space seems to be an endeavour that contributes to the construction of postmodern geographies; probably influenced by the movements of Latin American scholars at the time of its writing and Santos’ interactions with U.S. and French scholars, including Edward Soja and his Third Space approach. This approach is clearly manifested in Chapter 3 through the discussion of geographic space as hybrid. Therefore, it is not clear how this book can be related to the author’s earlier work on the social relations of production and spatial political economy, or how we cannot situate it within a historical geographical materialist interpretation of space.
In how to understand the positionality of Santos’ The Nature of Space within a broader body of spatial theorising, this book reveals one of its weaknesses. It requires a lot from the reader in terms of theory. For instance, some reflections require previous knowledge of the author’s work, especially concerning some magisterial concepts, such as rugosidade (or roughness or rugosidad), which could have been discussed in more detail. However, it is necessary to mention that this is not a difficulty that originates in the writing style alone. It is also a challenge presented by the translation. The translation uses a reduced amount of the original Portuguese edition’s notes, which are also included in the Spanish edition. In this sense, it is unclear why the translators removed relevant notes that might have helped the reader situate Santos’ theoretical background. Those notes are helpful in familiarising one with the sophisticated bibliographical resources Santos employs in proposing some key ideas.
Aligned with the above, Susanne Hecht’s claim—in the introduction—about this work ‘diverting critical geography away from simple Marxist critiques’ is not clear and it would have been interesting to see what a ‘simple Marxist critique’ in her view is. So, the introduction to the English edition neither contributes to understanding where this book is situated within Santos’ wider intellectual work nor within a wider spectrum of spatial political economy. Instead, the introduction is focused on presenting the figure and trajectory of the Brazilian scholar. For that, we already have the contribution made by Lucas Melgaço and Carolyn Prouse, which skilfully tackles both perspectives. Consequently, a comment needs to be made that although any translation of a text is not an easy endeavour the result we have here is a very mixed one. For instance, it is not clear why the translators use “work” instead of “labour” in many cases of the book where clearly Santos is discussing “trabalho” as labour from a historical materialist perspective. Consequently, the translation makes the approach for the Anglophone reader even more difficult.
In understanding Santos’ wider contribution to geography and spatial political economy, we could mention Archie Davies’ approach to reading Santos as an active participant in the discussions of the founding of radical geography. Hence, as an insider in and beyond Anglophone debates, there are innumerable testimonies—see, for instance, María Nélida Martínez—on Santos’ active engagement with US-European and Latin American scholars on the founding of radical geography. So, reading this book one needs to avoid looking for answers in and reifying “Southern Theory” because that could lead to the risk of delivering an ahistorical and aspatial theory reduced to uneven development. Instead, the effort should be put into building a dialogue between Milton Santos and Henri Lefebvre, Doreen Massey, Neil Smith, Jennifer Robinson and David Harvey, as a few examples.
It is essential to recognise that academics are situated in a particular place and time and often with a veil grounded in their own societal restrictions and advantages. In this sense, according to David Harvey, Marx’s claim that England is “the classic form” of primitive accumulation brought some criticism. Although, shortly thereafter, Marx became aware of the diversity of primitive accumulation processes, in some senses, he becomes geographically sensitive to how processes unfold differently in different places. All in all, maybe each scholar has their own terroir. In this sense, this book is a clear contribution to and complements past and present discussions on socio-spatial theory with nuances based upon his experience as a geographer from the “Third World”.
Hence, section one of The Nature of Space offers a sophisticated ontology of space that presents a tension between the global and the local. This tension will continue for the entirety of the book. Here, place (or locality) is the principal coordinate as an underlying argument where techniques (a técnica), time, objects and actions are manifested as systems in—and acting upon—places. Santos argues ‘the use of objects through time demonstrates successive histories that have developed in and out of place’. In this sense, it is impossible not to link these discussions with Lefebvre’s savoir in the production of space because the praxis of savoir is also manifested in a series of techniques, in Santos’ sense, that enable it to become a local material reality, which also responds to the mode of production present in a place. As Santos writes, ‘it is as if geography sought to reinforce the opposition between a natural and technical milieu, refusing to see technique integrated into the milieu as part of a single reality’. Hence, we can see already a connection with Massey’s spatial divisions of labour and Frank Stilwell’s claim that, ‘in the real world, all human activity occurs in both space and time’, which also coincides with the idea of simultaneity of spatial analysis presented by Karl Schlögel’s Moscow 1937. This is a question that is clearly tackled in Santos’ Chapter 6. Therefore, one of the reflections from Santos’ ontology of space is the concept of techniques as the channel through which societies exist and produce space according to different historical periods. So, some questions are opened up. If, for instance, as Marx states, ‘science, generally speaking, costs the capitalist nothing’, are techniques just as well appropriated by the capitalist and, therefore, used to improve capitalist accumulation in local spaces? Is this Santos’ underlying central argument?
This last question is presented as another possible weakness of the book. As the argument lacks a grounded material or empirical discussion, there is a creeping ahistorical analysis that does not address an indisputable use and clear presentation of the concepts. In this sense, Santos argues that we can read history through objects as a history of techniques that ‘allows for the construction of a heuristic and genetic geographic epistemology rather than merely the historicist and analytic one that Edward Soja so feared’. So, between Chapters 5 and 13, there is a collection of discussions that barely use examples to demonstrate their validity. Some of them are theoretical constructions based on theoretical arguments, which could be happening in reality. Still, we cannot be sure about that with this one book at hand. Yet, in Chapter 13, we can clearly see Santos’ insider theory side, as ‘Rational Space’, clearly speaks to Lefebvre’s notion of abstract space. Both concepts are dialects of the same language that complement each other and help to strengthen the discussion of capitalist space.
Finally, the last section, ‘The Power of Place’, presents a strong argument albeit with the aforementioned difficulties. The analysis starts with a focus on praxis in space and we can see the link between theory and the material reality. In these closing lines, I take licence to mention that the subsection ‘Migrants in Place: From Memory to Discovery’ is the one that personally resonates the most with my experience in Sydney, Australia. Santos argues, ‘when a person encounters a space that they did not help to create, whose history they do not know, and whose memory is strange to them, that place is the point of a strong alienation’. Santos continues, ‘in a new place, the past is not present; we must instead face the future: we may experience perplexity at first but then confront the need to orient ourselves’. Finally, he argues, ‘in this context, people seek to relearn what they never taught, and little by little to replace their ignorance of their environment with knowledge of it, albeit a knowledge that may be fragmented or partial’. So, maybe in this section, he was taking his experience at hand, the period of exile from Brazil, the uncountable exchanges with spatial theorists in his travels to Africa, the U.S. and Europe, in trying to understand the sparks that the new places gave him. This is an interesting discussion because it brings to light debates initiated by Frank Stilwell in Understanding Cities & Regions on spatial political economy, specifically about how place informs our conceptions of space.
In consequence, perhaps, yes, each academic has their own terroir and we need to discover the favourable conditions for the emergence of their greatness.