‘Space’ is very much on the agenda these days. On the one hand, from a wide variety of sources come proclamations of the significance of the spatial in these times: ‘It is space not time that hides consequences from us’ (Berger); ‘The difference that space makes’ (Sayer); ‘That new spatiality implicit in the postmodern’ (Jameson); ‘It is space rather than time which is the distinctively significant dimension of contemporary capitalism’ (Urry); and ‘All the social sciences must make room for an increasingly geographical conception of mankind’ (Braudel). Even Foucault is now increasingly cited for his occasional reflections on the importance of the spatial. His 1967 Berlin lectures contain the unequivocal: ‘The anxiety of our era has to do fundamentally with space, no doubt a great deal more than with time.’ In other contexts the importance of the spatial, and of associated concepts, is more metaphorical. In debates around identity the terminology of space, location, positionality and place figures prominently. Homi Bhabha, in discussions of cultural identity, argues for a notion of a ‘third space’. Jameson, faced with what he sees as the global confusions of postmodern times, ‘the disorientation of saturated space’, calls for an exercise in ‘cognitive mapping’. And Laclau, in his own very different reflections on the ‘new revolution of our time’, uses the terms ‘temporal’ and ‘spatial’ as the major differentiators between ways of conceptualizing systems of social relations.

In some ways, all this can only be a delight to someone who has long worked as a ‘geographer’. Suddenly the concerns, the concepts (or, at least, the terms) which have long been at the heart of our discussion are at the centre also of wider social and political debate. And yet, in the midst of this gratification I have found myself uneasy about the way in which, by some, these terms are used. Here I want to examine just one aspect of these anxieties about some of the current uses of spatial terminology: the conceptualization (often implicit) of the term ‘space’ itself.

In part this concern about what the term ‘space’ is intended to mean arises simply from the multiplicity of definitions adopted. Many authors rely heavily on the terms ‘space’/‘spatial’, and each assumes that their meaning is clear and uncontested. Yet in fact the meaning that different authors assume (and therefore—in the case of metaphorical usage—the import of the metaphor) varies greatly. Buried in these unacknowledged disagreements is a debate that never surfaces; and it never surfaces because everyone assumes we already know what these terms mean. Henri Lefebvre, in the opening pages of his book The Production of Space, commented on just this phenomenon: the fact that authors who in so many ways excel in logical rigour will fail to define a term which functions crucially in their argument: ‘Conspicuous by its absence from supposedly epistemological studies is. . .the idea. . .of space—the fact that “space” is mentioned on every page notwithstanding.’footnote1 At least there ought to be a debate about the meaning of this much-used term.

Nonetheless, had this been all that was at issue I would probably not have been exercised to write an article about it. But the problem runs more deeply than this. For among the many and conflicting definitions of space that are current in the literature there are some—and very powerful ones—which deprive it of politics and of the possibility of politics: they effectively depoliticize the realm of the spatial. By no means all authors relegate space in this way. Many, drawing on terms such as ‘centre’/‘periphery’/‘margin’, and so forth, and examining the ‘politics of location’ for instance, think of spatiality in a highly active and politically enabling manner. But for others space is the sphere of the lack of politics.

Precisely because the use of spatial terminology is so frequently unexamined, this latter use of the term is not always immediately evident. This dawned fully on me when I read a statement by Ernesto Laclau in his New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time. ‘Politics and space,’ he writes on page 68, ‘are antinomic terms. Politics only exist insofar as the spatial eludes us.’footnote2 For someone who, as a geographer, has for years been arguing, along with many others, for a dynamic and politically progressive way of conceptualizing the spatial, this was clearly provocative!