Henri Lefebvre’s last book, Éléments de rhythmanalyse, was published posthumously in 1992. It was only in the 1980s that Lefebvre explicitly dealt with the notion of rhythm – first in the third volume of Critique of Everyday Life, published in 1981, and then in two co-written shorter pieces which preceded the book on rhythmanalysis. However, he does mention the necessity of “completing the exposition of the production of space” already back in 1974, at the end of his most famous work, The Production of Space. There he suggests that an analysis of rhythms would contribute to the constructive critique of the production of space.
Lefebvre phrased the aim of the book as “taking the concept of rhythm and turning it into a science, a new field of knowledge with practical consequences” (Lefebvre 2004:VIII). In his vision, it was to be an interdisciplinary science that would simultaneously work with time and space, to get us think of both differently.
The precedents of rhythmanalysis are Gaston Bachelard and Lucio Alberto Pinheiro dos Santos who had who first coined the term. It was Bachelard’s work that Lefebvre was well familiar with, especially the Dialectic of Duration (1981) provided him with ideas on rhythms in relation to time. There Bachelard suggests that the notion of duration is never as unitary and cohesive as it tends to be suggested, but rather fragmentary and made up of disparate and fragmentary elements. Lefebvre shared this critique of the supposed continuity of duration and follows the same line of thought throughout his book on rhythmanalysis, drawing attention on the domination of linear time counting over cyclical, natural temporalities.
Lefebvre dialectically divides time into linear and cyclical, the first one originating with social practices of human behavior (work and school hours, transportation timetables etc.); the latter having a cosmic origin (phases of the moon and the sun, the nature). Cosmic temporality has historically had a strong influence on human activities especially in agricultural societies where harvesting is in complete correlation with the phases of the moon. However, temporalities provided by the nature have progressively lost their importance owing to the increasing domination of linear time over cyclic time, established at its maximum efficiency during the industrialization. As Lewis Mumford insisted, it’s the clock, not the steam-engine that we ought to consider as the key machine of the industrial age. (Ref.) The clock not only measures the time spent on work but it also counts our moments of leisure, turning the qualitative aspects of our social life into something quantitative. Indeed, as Lefebvre points out, leisure activities are also produced despite being proclaimed free time. Isn’t this freedom yet another capitalized product?
Going back to the main points of Lefebvre’s theory, it is important to keep in mind the essential role of repetition in the constitution of rhythms. If it weren’t for repetitive actions (such as waking up, going to work, having lunch at 2PM) the everyday would not have this feeling of day-to-day, that is to say, a sense of familiarity provided by an established succession of events. Repetition is also central in music where melody, harmony and rhythm are in correlation to time. However, the perception of each of these elements is facilitated by contrast. Therefore the question of rhythm raises issues of change and repetition, identity and difference, contrast and continuity. “There is always something new and unforeseen that introduces itself into the repetitive: difference. Not only does repetition not exclude differences, it also gives birth to them; it produces them” (Lefebvre 2004:6). It is the fête, the out-of-the-ordinary that makes the everyday repetition more noticeable. It is the return from Sunday to Monday that makes us appreciate the off time of the weekend. Rhythmanalysis is thus a study of parallel rhythms and ruptures. Lefebvre actually defines the everyday as ‘polyrhytmia’, which in musical language stands for the simultaneous use of two or more conflicting rhythms, that are not readily perceived as deriving from one another, or as simple manifestations of the same meter (listen to a simple aural example here here). Relying more on this musical vocabulary, Lefebvre follows on to describe the conviviality of different rhythms as eurhytmia, while a discomfort caused by the discordance of rhythms takes the definition of arrhytmia.
Now the question is how do we apply this charming line of thought in actual everyday life? Apart from his essay “Seen from the Window” where Lefebvre conducts a minuscular observation of the rhythms of rue Rambaud, his home street in Paris, he leaves no methodological legacy for future rhythmanalysts to follow. For that reason a fairly wide variety of approximations can be found in the academic literature. For me, perhaps the most interesting and exhaustive rhythmanalytical work has been carried out by Fillippa Wunderlich that conducted a year-long study of London’s Fitzroy Square. Among other methods, she converted recordings of the ambiance into sound spectrum diagrams and juxtaposed them with place-rhythm diagrams, turning them into this sexy image you can see below. Is it useful for anything? No idea, but it sure is damn appealing and worth more exploring…
One of the many diagrams F.Wunderlich uses in her study of Fitzroy Square.
Goonerwadena, G., Kipfer,S, Milgrom, R., Schmid, C. (Eds.) (2008) Space, Difference, Everyday Life. Reading Henri Lefebvre. London and New York: Routledge.
Lefebvre, H. (2004) Rhythmanalysis. Space, Time and Everyday Life. London: Continuum.
Mumford, L. (1934) Technics and Civilization. New York: Harcourt.