Lefebvre and rhythmanalysis

Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991) was a French thinker who examined philosophical, political and sociological issues from a Marxist perspective throughout most of the 20th century. In Éléments de rythmanalyse, Lefebvre presented his theory of ’rhythmanalysis’, a concept that has remained relatively marginal, but which Lefebvre himself hoped would form the basis for a new branch of science.

Rhythmanalysis concerns the rhythms that manifest themselves in our surrounding sense-world and what they reveal about it. The object of investigation can be anything from a city square, a group of people, a body, a society or a piece of music – for Lefebvre believes that everything has a rhythm and can be seen from a rhythmic perspective.

Becoming and rhythm

Before we can learn about rhythms, we must first have some temporal understanding of the world. Lefebvre paves the way for such an understanding by discussing the concept of ’the thing’. He does not consider the thing an immutable object outside time. A thing is not unchangeable and eternal. It is a multiplicity of rhythms that manifest themselves in specific contexts at any given time. To see the world as a ’becoming’ (an idea shared by Deleuze among others) is to suggest that things are “ensemble[s] full of meaning, transforming them no longer into diverse things, but into presences” (Lefebvre 2004 p. 23). These presences unfold in a multiplicity of different tempos. Lefebvre breaks with our notion of constancy at a basic level. This allows him to examine the world’s temporalities, and he does this from the point of view of rhythm.

Although from this perspective a thing is always a ’becoming’, this is not the same as saying that it has a rhythm. A rhythm is more than a movement. A rhythm always contains, in addition, a form of repetition, a return and a difference. There must be a clear event that marks the return point of a rhythmic cycle. A rhythm’s return must also follow some law. However, this law must be different from that of identical/mechanical repetition. Any return must therefore include an element of difference that occurs internally in the event and causes the cycle to change upon each return. Here Lefebvre distinguishes between a (differentiated) rhythm and a (mechanical) return.

The differentiated return and the mechanical return

Lefebvre sees the linear and the cyclical as a dialectical pair of concepts between which there is a constant tension. They form an ’antagonistic unity’. Therefore, there are no examples of phenomena that exclusively operate cyclically, since there will always be a linear element present – and vice versa. Moreover, predominantly cyclical events usually occur in the natural world, such as plant cycles, breathing, the month, the year and tides. Approaching the linear pole on the other hand, we mainly find examples from human society: the hammer’s blow, the rhythms of working days, the beats of a metronome. The linear often springs from the human and from the industrialised work of human beings. These rhythms are goal-oriented. As a rule, when these rhythms are completely mechanised, what has just happened copies itself and thus forms its own closed system. Lefebreve calls this a ’brutal repetition’.

The cyclical and the linear are present in all rhythms. This opposition is perhaps most evident in the daily life and work of human beings: living rhythms versus goal-oriented production. Lefebvre clearly sides with the cyclical, since it leaves room for difference, unlike mechanical monotony,
which he believes creates fatigue.

The body as a nexus of rhythms

The most important starting point for Lefebvre’s analyses of rhythms is the human body – its own rhythms, its reception of other rhythms and its sensations.

In Lefebvre’s terminology, the body is a ’bouquet’ of rhythms that both function at their own paces and are mutually arranged to form a coordination. Lefebvre uses the term ’polyrhythm’ to denote a multilayered rhythmic environment where different rhythms interact at the same time. Examples of the body’s concurrent rhythms are the heartbeat, craniosacral rhythm, digestion and breath. Lefebvre calls the state of such diverse rhythms interacting in coordination ’eurhythmia’. Here the rhythms form a special harmony in which they work both as a whole and in their own tempo. Eurhythmia is a state of normality in which things work as they should and in which the rhythms therefore are usually not noticed.

However, if there is a negative disturbance in the rhythms, this typically causes the local disharmony to spread, which may have further disastrous consequences for the entire system. Lefebvre calls this destructive rhythmic phenomenon ’arrhythmia’. Arrhythmia is typically discovered in cases of disease or dysfunction, where the rhythms become noticeable.

The last of Lefebvre’s concepts of rhythm is ’isorhythmia’, which is a collection of hierarchically coordinated rhythms. This relation of rhythms is synchronised from above – the rhythms are brought into concurrence by an external impulsegiver. Thus these rhythms are externally constituted. This phenomenon contrasts with eurhythmia, where the rhythms are internally constituted. According to Lefebvre, eurhythmia and isorhythmia are mutually exclusive.

By virtue of its inbuilt polyrhythms, the body is an example of how many different (in this case biological) rhythms can work together in eurhythmia. Besides its own biological rhythms, the body also receives rhythms from the outside – from the social, cosmic and natural/ecological worlds. The social rhythms are culturally and historically conditioned and include rhythms of eating and sleeping, working hours, breaks and holidays. These rhythms are learned, but of course affect the biological rhythms (and vice versa). The same applies to cosmic and natural/ecological rhythms, such as the rhythms of day and night, months, seasons, plants and weather systems.

All these rhythms can of course be grouped together in many ways, as there is no a priori division. They interact in various simultaneous forms of interplay between the extreme poles of eurhythmia and arrhythmia. Lefebvre also speaks of many different ’bodies’ – the bodies of societies, of human groups, of the Earth, etc. – which act as constitutive entities whose interacting rhythms can be analysed. However, the human body remains our centre, in relation to which the rhythms that are important to us meet, interact and are proportioned.

The body as a measure, the body as a sensor

Lefebvre makes an important point: the body proportions the rhythms we sense. Seen at an abstract level, the speeds of rhythms are relative. Slowness and quickness are relative. For example, the rhythm of a diurnal cycle is very slow compared to that of a mosquito’s wing beats, but fast compared to the Earth’s orbit around the sun. But the human body gives us a basis on which to compare rhythms. Abstract temporalities become associated with an actual physical place, namely a human body, and therefore become actual themselves. Because an anchor value is introduced, concepts such as slow and fast suddenly make sense and can be used as real descriptors.

A rhythm analyst, writes Lefebvre, uses all of his or her senses and attempts to sense as much as possible: “He will listen to the world, and above all to what are disdainfully called noises, which are said without meaning, and to murmurs, full of meaning – and finally he will listen to silences” (Lefebvre 2004 p. 19). In a formulation that John Cage probably would have agreed with, Lefebvre urges the reader to listen “in a sensitive, preconceptual but vivid way” (Ibid. p. 72) before analysing. Thus the analyst does not take stock of what makes sense and what doesn’t in advance. In this way Lefebvre reinstates sensory perception (and the body) as the common-sense foundation that he believes philosophy has long undermined.

To gain an understanding of rhythms, of time, one therefore has to experience the rhythms oneself, through one’s own body: “[the rhythm analyst] thinks with his body, not in the abstract, but in lived temporality” (Ibid. p. 21). The ability to sense in this way, according to Lefebvre, is something that has to be learned as a discipline, something that requires concentration and a certain amount of time. The latter not least because, as he describes it, one has to surrender oneself to the rhythms to which one listens, which literally takes time. This point I think is very important, especially for those of us who work with written theory: it is crucial that these theories are experienced with the body and not only understood on an abstract plane.

Lefebvre’s theory of rhythm thus has four key aspects:

  1.     First, his understanding of the relationship between part and whole. He considers all entities to be part of a context, of a cooperative network. There are parallel examples of this view in other disciplines, for example actor-network theory in the social sciences and chaos theory and thermodynamics in the natural sciences, to which temporality is integral.
  2.     Second, his theory contains an implicit ethics, since eurhythmic systems are presented as balanced and healthy and arrhythmic systems as presented as ’sick’ and approaching collapse.
  3.     Third, Lefebvre calls for participation, for an experience of temporality, not just distanced observation.
  4.    Finally, he employs the dialectical concepts of circular and linear, which make it possible to analyse temporal correlations in systems the analyst must define him/herself, but which are always based on concrete contexts.

Lefebvre employs rhythmanalysis to address key ontological and philosophical issues, but rhythmanalysis is so open that it can be used very widely as an analytical tool to address both actual physical correlations and more metaphorical artistic issues.

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