Lefebvre / Césaire: Decolonising and Differentialising HE Space

This blog draws on two key writers and thinkers. Aimé Césaire and Henri Lefebvre. Césaire’s essay Discourse on Colonialism is an important starting point for us to consider what colonisation means (for those colonised but also those who colonise) and to from there to be able to consider what decolonisation in educational spaces might entail.

Rob Smith
Professor of Education

efebvre / Césaire:  Decolonising and Differentialising HE Space blog large image

Lefebvrian thinking combines a critique of the ‘monster’ of capital (Lefebvre 2004: 55) with an insistence that every moment carries within it the potential for change. And while he sees the influence of capital as deforming what it is to be human, he also never loses sight of the potential for humans to transform the world and themselves in positive ways. He also writes about the production of space and presents time as elastic and rhythmic rather than linear – something above all shaped by human consciousness.  

In his essay, Césaire is concerned with the formula: colonisation = thingification, the objectification, exploitation and dehumanisation of people.

Two quotations from Césaire:

Therefore, comrade, you will hold as enemies - loftily, lucidly, consistently - not only sadistic governors and greedy bankers, not only prefects who torture and colonists who flog, not only corrupt, check-licking politicians and subservient judges, but likewise and for the same reason, venomous journalists, goitrous academicians, wreathed in dollars and stupidity, ethnographers who go in for metaphysics, presumptuous Belgian theologians, chattering intellectuals born stinking out of the thigh of Nietzsche, the paternalists, the embracers, the corrupters, the back-slappers, the lovers of exoticism, the dividers, the agrarian sociologists, the hoodwinkers, the hoaxers, the hot-air artists, the humbugs, and in general, all those who, performing their functions in the sordid division of labour for the defence of Western bourgeois society, try in divers ways and by infamous diversions to split up the forces of Progress-even if it means denying the very possibility of Progress - all of them tools of capitalism, all of them, openly or secretly, supporters of plundering colonialism, all of them responsible, all hateful, all slave-traders, all henceforth answerable for the violence of revolutionary action. (p11)


… since you are talking about factories and industries, do you not see the tremendous factory hysterically spitting out its cinders in the heart of our forests or deep in the bush…; do you not see the prodigious mechanization, the mechanization of man; the gigantic rape of everything intimate, undamaged, undefiled that, despoiled as we are, our human spirit has still managed to preserve; the machine, yes, have you never seen it, the machine for crushing, for grinding, for degrading peoples? (p23)

Our challenge originates in a policy context in which HE is being commodified and its status as a public good eroded. The thingification of students, their transformation into ‘consumers’ is a by-product of this. From the super-diverse city of Birmingham, which has written into the stories of its people the marks and memories of colonisation and empire, our students come to us and we need to counterpose this bleak picture with a (co-produced) educational space.

Lefebvrian thought opens a possible avenue of exploration. Lefebvre sees space as dehumanising when it is ‘abstract’. This space is conjured up as ‘an impersonal pseudo-subject’ which conceals ‘state (political) power’. In such space, ‘lived experience is crushed’ and ‘vanquished’ (Lefebvre (1991: 49–51). In counterpoint, he offers ‘differential space’ that he sees as existing as potential within abstract space like a seed of the opposite:

I shall call that new space ‘differential space’, because, inasmuch as abstract space tends towards homogeneity, towards the elimination of existing differences or peculiarities, a new space cannot be born (produced) unless it accentuates differences. (1991: 52)

Our challenge then is to refashion and co-produce (as teachers and students) educational space as ‘differential space’.

We are all in-betweenies. Born into an existing culture or set of family values but on the outskirts of another, which may presume itself to be superior. Our first trajectory might involve aligning ourselves with that culture. But we may then discover that in learning to articulate ourselves inside this culture, we have lost ourselves. The moment at which we articulate knowledge drawn from the dominant culture in a voice that does not subordinate our own identities is the moment that the thing we call diversity is preserved & the thing Lefebvre calls ‘differential space’ is created and sustained.

Researchers and teachers in higher education are on a journey where that potential might be realised in microcosm in the differential space we strive to co-produce in our classes with all of our students.

Further reading


Wifredo Lam videos and art: