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The production of places in the globalized world

Book review of: Denis Retaillé. Les Lieux de la Mondialisation
Olivier Walther
Bibliographical reference

Denis Retaillé. 2012. Les Lieux de la Mondialisation. Paris, Le Cavalier Bleu.

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1Books about globalization that describe a world characterized by convergence, without also assuming homogeneity, are quite rare. The Production of Places in the Globalized World (Les Lieux de la Mondialisation) by geographer Denis Retaillé is one notable exception. Faced with the challenge of studying ten places in the world, the author has developed a conceptual framework that situates each in terms of their global networks and flows and demonstrates how they continue to be substantially different.

2Retaillé, the author of another handbook on globalization published in 2010, deploys a “fairly sophisticated typology” (page 16), which postulates that each place is characterized by four properties: a cultural identity, geopolitical power, economic prosperity and globalizationness (mondialité). These four characteristics are evolving in each case and are affected by the forces of globalization. The originality of this approach lies not so much with the identification of these characteristics, but in how they interact to produce three types of “spaces”: the space of war, of order, and of contract. The Antarctic, Nunavut, Jerusalem, the Internet, the City of London, Dubai, Dharavi, Porto Alegre, and the United Nations all have a certain profile, which is the result of the combination of more or less war, more or less order, and more or less contract. This principle is the origin of the “multi-layered space of globalization” (17).

3The Antarctic case is notable by the absence of cultural claims and by the omnipresence of norms. Its profile represents “a totally globalized world where war has no location, where contracts govern activities without competition, but in collaboration, and where states are at once participants and guarantors” (33). Jerusalem, by contrast, is dominated by a space of war stemming from cultural tensions, geopolitical power, and the quasi-absence of contracts. Retaillé’s conceptual framework allows us to distinguish between different places occupying the same site, such as Jerusalem, where the three monotheistic religions struggle over the territory of the city. It also enables the disaggregation of two places often confused in the literature as in the case with the City of London – a primary site of economic globalization – and London – an incredibly diverse global city.

4This analysis of globalization also permits the author to re-explore some familiar themes, such as mobility. The originator of the concept of mobile space, Retaillé defines mobility as a state of movement and the foundation of the production of geographical space. Following Gottmann (1952) he argues that man controls movement by erecting barriers that permit them to master space in the sedentary logic, or by linking a variety of places to master surface in the nomadic logic. The originality of Retaillé’s approach is his reflection of the implications of the primacy of movement on the tools used by geographers to understand space. If movement comes first, as he asserts, then the principal question of geography is no longer about where activities are localized, but to understand the distances that separate human activity that are created by movement.

5This book develops the idea there is no distance without movement by arguing that we need to reconceptualise place as the product of the convergence of movement. Retaillé argues that places are “chosen as witnesses to the movements that animate the world” (15) in his defence of the diversity of his empirical cases. The fact that place is produced by movement enables us to distinguish it from other concept developed by geographers to describe places as sites or localities. This responds to a frequent critique of Retaillé’s approach based on the fact that space itself cannot be mobile because places cannot move. By distinguishing clearly between sites, localities and places he shows that space is mobile in terms of places, whereas sites remain fixed, and localities are permanent.

6If a place is the produce of intersections of movement then its existence can be threatened by changes in itineraries that create it: such was the fate of Saharan oases that vanished due to shifting caravan routes. In the same way, places of globalization can emerge suddenly from obscurity, such as Fukuskima, whose importance to the world was only revealed by the tragedy of natural disaster. The fortunes of places are not fluid and their position in the global hierarchy can be challenged. In the process of empowering the world of finance relative to the material economy the capitals of empires, such as London, have emerged as metropolises at the crossroads of international flows. The author does not fail to highlight the degree to which the production of places is dependent on flows thereby turning the view that flows are linked to places defined a priori on its head. In this approach, trajectories and phases of movement replace the endpoints of origin and destination through which spatial analysis traditionally look at displacement.

7The ephemeral character of places occasionally requires a dualistic strategy. Dubai is probably the best example of a place where the façade presented to the world of financial, tourist and traveller flows is the opposite of the experience of immigrants in the emirate. Dubai’s strategy is to ensure that global investments create local benefit. This approach, not entirely unique to Dubai – Luxembourg is another similar case – consists of convincing these flows of people and capital to stop and stay awhile, and of tempting flows destined to other locations. This strategy is designed to attract “more capital, business and people from around the entire world on the understanding that this attraction is only possible because of movements and flows” (123).

8Retaillé does not limit himself to critiquing classical approaches to movement. He also shows how societies differ based on how they treat the twin concepts of fixity and mobility discussed throughout the book. In order to qualify the way societies “deploy images of the world as they think it should be” the author introduces the idea of “spaces of representation” (67). In some places, such as the territory of Nunavut in Canada, the aboriginal concept of a “people of the earth” (45) is applied to populations that have long been mobile.

9In order to conceptualize the diversity of spaces of representation, the author reflects on the new forms of limits that spring from the relativization of contemporary territorial constructs, such as States. The borders of states are just one kind of limit among many – such as the front, which is single edge, and the horizon, which is a limit without edges. The Internet is an example of a space where limits are constantly surpassed, while the United Nations, limited by the sovereignty of its member states “creates the potential for another form of limit: the world is the site of action and the organization is its horizon” (184).

10In sum, The Production of Places in the Globalized World is a book that is as dense as it is original. It is complemented with photographs and maps designed at the University of Bordeaux that often show the world from unconventional points of view. Readers familiar with Retaillé’s previous work will be familiar with his particular vocabulary. He distinguished, for example, the ‘world’ from the ‘World’ wherein the first described everything on the face of the earth and the second characterizes the integration between those on the surface, or the word ‘globalization’, defined as the “phenomenon of economic unification of the world by the mobility of capital and, more generally, of the factors of production” (105) from the ‘globalization’ resulting from the humanization of the earth. Although it is not a specialist text it does contain a good number of bibliographic references and suggestions for further reading. The Production of Places in the Globalized World is nothing like those books that propose 1000 places to visit in your life. Rather than such a necessarily limited collection it instead offers a key to understand all globalized places, here and abroad, and of today and tomorrow.

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Gottmann J. 1952. La politique des Etats et leur géographie. Paris, Armand Colin.

Retaillé D. 2010. La mondialisation. Paris, Nathan.

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Electronic reference

Olivier Walther, « The production of places in the globalized world », Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], Book Reviews, 2012, Online since 02 September 2012, connection on 29 March 2017. URL :

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About the author

Olivier Walther

Olivier Walther is a Researcher at the Department of Geography, Centre for Population, Poverty and Public Policy Studies in Luxembourg, and a Research Associate at the Department of Geography, University of Bordeaux III in France. He holds a PhD from the University of Lausanne and the University of Rouen. His major research interests lie in informal economic networks and cross-border integration in West Africa. Aside from West African studies, Olivier Walther is involved in several research projects dedicated to cross-border metropolitan integration in Europe. Email:

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