Time, Space and the Body: Using Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalysis in Consumer Research
by Ming Lim
Since the 1980s, space has come to be accepted among consumer culture researchers as one of the defining matrices of human experience. With his imaginative theory of how consumers extend their personalities and identities through possessions, Belk (1988) provided a means for researchers of consumer culture to talk about how we push our selves beyond spatial boundaries. His argument always took account of time as well: in speaking of the ‘present extended self,’ (Belk, 1988: 159, my italics), Belk put in place, as it were, temporality and time (as well as space) in an ontology of the self.
Thus, the social self has been considered as temporally determined, as well as spatially extended, in consumer marketing theory (Gibbs, 1998; Bandura, 1989). It has been argued that clock time, for instance, is a poor gauge for how consumers make purchasing decisions (Gibbs, 1998) and, more broadly, that the “chronological paradigm” constrains “current marketing thought” (Davies, 1994: 108). From a philosophical point of view, however, much can still be done to extend the interaction of space and time in consumer research. A profound contribution in this domain is given by Henri Lefebvre’s (2004/1992) notion of the body and its specific rhythms in lived times and spaces, that which he calls rhythmanalysis.
Lefebvre begins by noting that cities in modern times have changed the nature of our interactions with time and space irrevocably. City life cuts into what we might conceive of as organic patterns of being alive, working, playing, sleeping and so on. Cities, in other words, have commodified time and space. This violence requires, for a proper understanding of its effects, a new tool of analysis: rhythmanalysis. And so, the first use of rhythmanalysis is as a way of listening to urban life, to what is measured by commodities instead of simply what is timed, regularized, paced, speeded up, slowed down, cut up and sliced into segments. Instead of time and space as objects of familiar analysis (past, present and future), rhythmanalysis asks: What is measured? What is the same and what is different? What is repeated and continued? For Lefebvre, measurement by rhythms becomes important rather than our perennial fixation on time and space as distinct categories of experience.
The question then becomes, how is rhythm to be measured? And the answer is: in the body. The body should awaken us to the possibilities of measuring rhythms. When Lefebvre speaks of the ‘body, the urban vision again arises. In the city, the body becomes the first tool of analysis, not the object. We do not, however, analyse the rhythms of the body. That is not rhythmanalysis. There are scientific instruments of all kinds to do that. What is more interesting to the human sciences is that the body itself is the mode of measurement.
Let me point to just two implications for theorizing and measuring the ‘consumer’ using rhythmanalysis. First, the human rhythms of the body are regulated by those of the city and vice versa. They move with each other, sometimes smoothly, sometimes uneasily, but this co-existence is powered first and foremost by the biological rhythms of the consumer. Many times, the city and the consumer are one. The body ticks along with societal norms but the consumer’s body is also, primarily, a tool for measuring many other rhythms which appear to govern our behaviour. Thus, consumer research would seek out how rhythms co-exist but foreground the body as a metronomic device for further social analysis.
Thus, rhythmanalysis frees us from the notion of space-time as something that can be only be objectively measured rather than subjectively felt. At the same time, Lefebvre is also insistent that space/time are constructed by bodies and can, therefore, be measured. Really doing it would be an intriguing challenge for consumer research.