Lefebvre, Habitat, and the Dystopia of the Contemporary Public University

Like many universities, the University of Washington is being systematically defunded by the state and is scrounging for new revenue wherever it can find it.  Of course the main strategy, as elsewhere, is to increase the burden on students and their families by raising tuition and fees.  But there is another piece to that strategy, and it is becoming very apparent in the space of the city.  Over the last few years, all over the University District, the university’s Housing and Food Services division has built new dorms complete with grocery stores, health clubs, restaurants, etc., all of which are intended to function as new-and-improved machines to extract money from students and their families.

I am struck by how useful Lefebvre’s concept of “habitat” is in this context.  He argued that the capitalist city stores its inhabitants in sterile, meaningless spaces, almost like warehouses, in order to keep track of them, to order their lives, and to continually reinforce their roles as workers and consumers.

Habitat also separates inhabitants from each other, preventing them from encountering each other in the street where they can discuss, play, create, and build common lives.  In short, habitat prevents what he calls l’inhabiter, which is when inhabitants come to understand the conditions of their existence and resolve to collectively manage those conditions for themselves.  L’inhabiter is, more or less, the texture of life in the socialist city to come.  Lefebvre wants to stress the importance of habitat’s physical warehousing and separating inhabitants in a way that feeds the imperatives of the capitalist city (and, it appears, the neoliberal university).

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2 thoughts on “Lefebvre, Habitat, and the Dystopia of the Contemporary Public University

  1. Great post. This is indeed part of a wider “struggle for the public university” and for spaces of difference that has to address what is happening across universities and across such spaces on a wider geographical scale. A recent post of my own at *For the Desk Drawer* on the struggle for the public university might further such discussion: http://bit.ly/NV3Sgo.

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