The Condition Of Postmodernity Essay, Research Paper
Book Review: The Condition of Postmodernity,
David Harvey is well-known in social theory circles for books like Social Justice and the City (1973), The Limits to Capital (1982), The Urbanization of Capital (1985), and Consciousness and The Urban Experience (1985) — all seminal attempts to chart the relatively new and unexplored interface between political economy and urban geography. The Condition of Postmodernity is a significant new work by Harvey that situates postmodern theory within a broad social context. Harvey’s main argument is that, beginning around 1972, there has been a “sea-change” in political, economic, and cultural practices, involving the emergence of a new postmodern sensibility in numerous fields and disciplines. Harvey relates postmodern developments to shifts in the organization of capitalism and new forms of time-space experience. Working from Marxist premises, his argument is similar to Fredric Jameon’s claim that postmodernism is “the cultural logic of late-capitalism,” with the difference that Harvey provides considerably more empirical support for this view.
To understand postmodernism and postmodernity, one first has to understand modernism and modernity, and Harvey provides good accounts of the major sources of modern ideas and the key structural features of modernity. Harvey’s basic approach to postmodernism is sound. Rather than rejecting postmodern developments as superficial and merely transitory, he believes they represent a new paradigm of thought and cultural practice that requires serious attention. At the same time, he avoids exaggerating the novelty of postmodern developments and sees both continuities and discontinuies with modern practices. Postmodernism represents not a complete rupture from modernism, but a new “cultural dominant” where elements that could be found in modernism appear in postmodernism with added emphasis and intensity. As he puts it, where a modernist like Baudelaire tried to combine in a modern aesthetic both the eternal and the transitory, the whole and the fragmentary, postmodernism rejects all attempts to represent the immutable or ordered patterns and totalities, in order to revel in flux, fragments, difference, and chaos.
Harvey is neither overly uncritical nor celebratory toward postmodernism. He criticizes postmodernism for being too nihilistic and for embracing aesthetics over ethics. Postmodernism avoids the realities of political economy and global capitalism and precludes the possibility of a positive politics informed by normative principles. Moreover, Harvey finds that postmodernists provide a caricatured account of modern cultural and theoretical practices. Harvey objects to the assimilation of a wide variety of modern architectural forms to the debacle of housing projects such as Pruitt-Igoe, and he claims modernists found ways to contain explosive and anarchic forms of capitalist development. Also, he believes that the “meta-narratives that the post-modernists decry (Marx, Freud, and even later figures like Althusser) were much more open, nuanced, and sophisticated than the critics admit” (115). Yet, unlike most other Marxist readings of postmodernism, Harvey also sees positive aspects to postmodernism, such as its concern for complexity, difference, otherness, and plurality which are neglected in many modern practices.
The most interesting and important aspect of Harvey’s book is his attempt to situate postmodernism within the logic of advanced capitalism. Unlike Baudrillard and other radical postmodernists, Harvey does not see postmodernism as some radically new postindustrial or even postcapitalist development. Rather, postmodernism results from new organization and technological forms developed by capitalism in the second half of this century. Specifically, Harvey directly relates postmodern developments to the shift from Fordism to a “more flexible mode of accumulation” (he deliberately avoids the term “post-Fordism” to avoid suggesting there are not some fundamental continuities in the two modes of capitalist organization).
Fordism emerged with the attempts by Henry Ford to provide workers with sufficient income and leisure time to consume the products they produce. “Fordism” refers to a process of coordinating production with consumption in order to attain a more complete assimilation of the working class to capitalism, relying on psychological management techniques. As Harvey sees it, Fordism, and the Keynesian economics it was bound up with, was too rigid as a mode of organization and accumulation. Governing the post-war boom years, this regime crumbled with the 1973 recession and gave way to a far more complex and supple economic structure with respect to such things as the labor process, the labor market, products, and consumption patterns.
One of the key aspects of this regime is that it greatly increases rates of commercial, technological, and organizational innovation. For Harvey, the speed-up of capital turnover and the pace of life itself has direct implications at the level of cultural practices. “The relatively stable aesthetic of Fordist modernism has given way to all the ferment, instability, and fleeting qualities of a postmodernist aesthetic that celebrates difference, ephemerality, spectacle, fashion, and the commodifications of cultural forms” (156). Postmodern developments are therefore directly related to “the more flexible motion of capital [which] emphasizes the new, the fleeting, the ephemeral, the fugitive, and the contingent in modern life, rather than the more solid values implanted under Fordism” (171).
An important part of Harvey’s book is devoted to analysis of historically changing forms of space-time experience. He holds that “neither time nor space can be assigned objective meanings independently of material processes” and that “conceptions of time and space are necessarily created through material practices which serve to reproduce social life” (204). It follows that the recently created “more flexible mode of accumulation” would produce a different form of time-space experience. Harvey characterizes this in terms of an ever greater “time-space compression” where long durations of time required for travel and communication are reduced to almost nothing and the vast, disparate spaces of the planet are absorbed into a homogenized, global village. Harvey believes this time-space compression that begins with capitalism has greatly intensified in the last two decades, and that postmodernism emerges as a cultural response to its disorienting and disruptive effects.
There is considerably more detail and nuance in Harvey’s book than I can present here. Harvey’s chapters on the social construction of space-time and urban postmodernism, for example, are interesting and important theoretical contributions. He also provides clear, detailed analyses of postmodern urban forms. For Harvey, urban postmodernism rejects modernist emphases on rational planning, large-scale development, social utility, and purity of form for a locally grounded, fragmented and eclectic aesthetic that combines various aesthetic styles (often in a purposely discontinuous manner) and sees space strictly as an aesthetic category.
A key merit of Harvey’s book is its wide-ranging, interdisciplinary scope. To illuminate postmodern developments, Harvey usefully draws from numerous fields, including art, architecture, urban planning, philosophy, social theory, and political economy. Overall, he is better on art and architecture than philosophy and social theory. His analysis of Foucault, for instance, is mistaken insofar as he unqualifiably labels Foucault a postmodernist, oblivious to the fact that Foucault adopts substantive aspects of modern and ancient thought in his later works. For the neophyte, Harvey’s book provides a useful discussion of the main issues of postmodern theory; for those well-acquainted with postmodern ideas and texts, it will too often appear as unoriginal summarizing.
There are two curious omissions in Harvey’s book: ecology and politics. Having developed a fruitful analysis of the modernist goal of a rational conquest of nature and social space, it is unfortunate that Harvey does not explore the ecological implications of modernism and the Enlightenment. Nor does he consider the relation of postmodern theoretical and cultural practices to the environment: do they replicate repressive modernist assumptions or encourage a non-exploitative relation to nature? Although Harvey remains silent on this issue, postmodern critiques of totalizing and dualistic outlooks seem to hold some promise for developing an entirely new epistemological and ontological relation to nature (as I argue in my recent article “Chaos and Entropy: Metaphors in Postmodern Science and Social Theory,” Science as Culture, #11, 1991).
The failure to address such questions is symptomatic of Harvey’s more general failure to discuss political strategies for our supposed postmodern condition. Unlike Lefebvre, the Situationists, and Jameson, Harvey does not extend his analysis of space into a distinctly spatial politics that helps us to reclaim our urban environment and to contruct new coordinates of the global class system and our place within it. In fact, although he calls for a reconstructed version of Marxism and Enlightenment values, Harvey is quintessentially postmodern in his superficial, fragmented, and rhetorical remarks on politics (see the last chapter of the book). While he observes “cracks in the mirrors” of a postmodern culture based on imagery, hype, and simulation, he does not speculate on how to smash these mirrors and the capitalist mode of production that creates them. With the vaguest sense of political change and opportunity, Harvey’s “politics” never go deeper this: “it becomes possible to launch a counter-attack of narrative against the image, of ethics against aesthetics, of a project of Becoming rather than Being, and to search for unity within difference, albeit in a context where the power of the image and of aesthetics, the problems of time-space compression, and the significance of geopolitics and otherness are clearly understood” (359).
Ultimately, Harvey’s analysis of postmodernism is reductionistic and requires better theorization of the mediations between economic and cultural practices. The links between capitalism and postmodernism, in order words, are too simple and crude, and more perspectives are needed to illuminate the multiple sources of influence on postmodern discourse. For example, Harvey doesn’t consider key political influences on postmodernism, such as the political failures of the 1960s which had a nihilistic fallout. Moreover, there are important intellectual influences on postmodernism (the emphases on discontinuity, complexity, chaos, perspectivism, anti-realism, etc), which were already present in modernism and were very important in scientific theories such as quantum mechanics, as well as in the thought of Nietzsche and pragmatism. Obviously, these major postmodern emphases came well before the “sea-change” of 1972.
Harvey might easily grant such influences (he at least sees some continuities between modernism and postmodernism), but he needs an account of “cultural dominant” that explains how a diversity of pre-existing factors, as well as new ones, coalesce into a postmodern sensibility. While no one should doubt that capitalism plays a major role in shaping contemporary values, ideas, practices, and experience, the intellectual influences on postmodernism are far more autonomous from the vicissitudes of capitalism than Harvey allows. In the future, better attempts at contextualizing postmodernism will need to be undertaken. But with Jameson’s partial account of postmodernism as the cultural logic of late-capitalism, and Harvey’s initial attempt to flesh this claim out empirically, we have two good contributions to a materalist analysis of postmodernism.
In The Condition of Postmodernity David Harvey makes the ambitious attempt to identify the logic underlying the chaotic cultural developments of the past twenty-five years. He believes that is possible to distill an essence from the manifold appearances of postmodernism, despite the emphatic arguments to the contrary of its theorists. He conceives the essence of postmodernism not as the static essentia, the “being” of the middle ages, but rather as the dynamic becoming, the “creative destruction” as he calls it, of modern capitalist mode of social reproduction. While Harvey does argue that the differences between the cultures of modernism and postmodernism are not as great as the defenders of the latter would have us believe, insofar as both are ultimately grounded in capital’s restless transformation of the modern world, he also attempts to establish the specificity of postmodern culture by rooting it in a shift in the dominant form of accumulation within larger capitalist context.
To support his claim that even postmodernism is determined “in the last instance” (to use the phrase which Harvey appropriates from Engels) by economics Harvey provides the reader with parallel surveys of the development of culture and economics in the twentieth century. In the first section of his book he documents the turn from “modernism” to “postmodernism” and in the second he examines the change from Fordism to flexible accumulation. Both of these rather dramatic shifts occur within a relatively short timespan — sometime between 1965 and 1973. After having demonstrated this correlation between the cultural and economic spheres, Harvey attempts in the third section to support the stronger claim that there is also a relation of causation between the two. He does this by surveying the historical transformation of the categories of space and time from the middle ages to the present. He wants to show that if the material developments of modern capitalism determine even these two most fundamental categories of human perception, then cultural activity as a whole certainly cannot be understood without reference to economic conditions. Harvey appends a fourth and final section, in which he assesses the promises and perils of postmodernity in greater detail and offers a few brief recommendations for the future of critical theory and politics, but the bulk of his evidence about the causal relationship between base and superstructure — to use the traditional Marxist terms which Harvey scrupulously avoids — is presented in the first three sections. It is the strengths and weaknesses this central argument which I will address in what follows.
The strength of Harvey’s argument lies in his demonstration of a temporal correlation between the shift to postmodernism in the cultural sphere and the shift to flexible accumulation in the economic sphere. Harvey succeeds in extensively documenting both these shifts by drawing on the work of persons of diverse background and political persuasion. He shows that even the most intransigent critics of postmodernism had admitted by the mid-eighties that some type of cultural sea-change had occurred around 1970. Harvey draws on three different recent economic works — from the neo-liberal, social democratic, and Marxist perspectives — which all argue that a fundamental shift in the economy occurred around 1970, even though they differ in their assessment of that shift. Having thus convincingly established the existence of temporal correlation, Harvey’s argument is far from complete, since there is, as David Hume reminded us in the eighteenth century, no necessary relationship between temporal correlation and causation. In order to ground his stronger claims about causation Harvey must move from the general to the specific; he needs to examine specific areas of culture or certain artistic works in order to demonstrate in greater detail how the economic determines the cultural in particular instances.
The two instances when Harvey engages in this type of concrete analysis he succeeds in supporting his main argument. In a chapter entitled “Postmodernism in the city: architecture and urban design,” Harvey draws on his vast knowledge of urban geography to demonstrate a link between Fordist methods of mass production and the international high modernism of Le Corbusier and Mies Van der Rohe. He shows, in particular, how the industrial methods of Fordism, which established their primacy in the realm of production in response to the crises of the Great Depression and the Second World War, were applied in the architectural realm to solve urgent problems of postwar urban renewal. Similarly, Harvey shows that when the decline in the rate
of profit forced the rigid Fordist system to yield to the speedier methods of flexible accumulation, there was a corresponding shift in architecture. The functional universalism of high modernism gave way to new forms of particularism. As examples, Harvey cites garish monuments to personal power such as the Trump Tower, or to the active marketing of cultural difference at the Baltimore City Fair which was used to make that city more attractive to outside investors.
Harvey’s second more detailed discussion of specific cultural works is an attempt to place the popular postmodern films Blade Runner and Wings of Desire into the context of increased space-time compression of flexible accumulation. Harvey’s observation that robot “replicants” in Blade Runner represent the ultimate in short-term, highly skilled and flexible labor power is insightful as are his comments on the role of images in maintaining a tenuous link to history and personal identity in Los Angeles in the year 2019, at a time when the chaos of flexible accumulation seems to have been driven to absurd extremes. While less insightful than his
discussion of Blade Runner, Harvey’s analysis of Wings of Desire also succeeds in relatingthe film’s concern with fragmentation, history and identity to the social conditions objectively produced by flexible accumulation.
After having laid the groundwork in the second part on the historical transformation of twentieth century capitalism Harvey is indeed able to show how transformation is reflected upon in the cultural sphere, but instead of engaging in more specific analyses of specific branches of culture or individual works of art in order to show precisely how economic factors determine postmodern culture, Harvey attempts to buttress his claims about postmodernism with a broad historical argument about the economic determination of culture throughout the modern period. This more ambitious, but ultimately unsuccessful attempt, leads him away from the interesting correlation between postmodernism and flexible accumulation that he sets up in the first two sections of the book. In his attempt to show that the remarkable correlation between economic and cultural transformation that seems to exist in the postmodern epoch has existed throughout the modern age Harvey makes a series of arguments that do not hold up under closer scrutiny.
He attempts, for example, to link the rise of cultural “modernism” to the first crisis of capitalist accumulation in 1848 and to the first experience of non-linear “explosive” time on the barricades in Paris during the revolution of 1848. The concept of modernism he invokes in this context is clumsier than the one he uses in the first section, where he is careful to differentiate between various stages in the development of modernism. The placement of the onset of “modernism” in 1848 seems rather arbitrary; did not the early romantics in England and Germany develop the themes of fragmentation, irony, and non-linearity? How can Harvey account for the return of the linear temporal narrative as the structuring element of the late nineteenth century realist novel?
Whereas Harvey fails to demonstrate convincingly the specificity cultural response to the economic-political crisis of 1848, he fails to identify the economic roots of the unprecedented flourishing of modernism between the years 1910-1915. There had been no major economic crises in the West since 1893, and until the beginning of the first world war, capitalism seemed to be functioning better than ever. Even the majority of the world’s largest socialist party, the SPD in Germany, were convinced that reform within, not revolution against capitalism was the best way to achieve their goals. Harvey does point to the development of Fordism during this period, but as he himself argues, Fordism did not establish itself as the dominant mode of production in the West until the second world war. In short, Harvey’s attempt to generalize historically the correlation between postmodernism and flexible accumulation leads him to make broad claims that he cannot support.
The second main weakness in Harvey’s account of the relationship between economics and culture is that the relationship he posits between the two is too simplistic, too unmediated. While Harvey is by no means a vulgar Marxist, who posits a mechanical relationship between base and superstructure, many of the generalizations he makes bring him dangerously close to this undialectical position. He claims, for example, that he sees no difference in principle between the vast range of speculative and equally unpredictable activities undertaken by entrepreneurs (new products, new marketing strategems, new technologies, new locations, etc.) and the equally speculative development of cultural, political, legal and ideological values and institutions under capitalism. Statements such as these reduce culture to nothing more than a reflex of the economy, i.e. to a commodity which is produced just like any other. Harvey’s repeated use of the metaphor of the mirror to describe culture in capitalism also reflect his view that culture is “in the last instance” determined by economic conditions. It is a platitude to claim that one cannot understand a work of art or other cultural product without reference to the historical-material context in which it is produced. Even the most abstract pieces of art are “determined” in some way by material conditions. The more interesting question that must be posed, and which it is the job of the interpreter to answer, is the precise nature of this determination, which differs widely from case to case. To argue that this determination is not mediated by subjective factors, i.e. by the needs, desires, freedom, ideals, etc. of those who produced the art work, as Harvey sometimes seems to do, is to fall back into a rigid historical determinism which leads to absurd and unacceptable conclusions. Was Harvey’s book nothing more than a commodity whose production was somehow dictated by the current state of flexible accumulation? This is not, of course the position that Harvey himself adopts, but by downplaying the subjective factors involved in cultural and artistic production, sometimes to the point of eliminating them altogether, Harvey borders on a theoretical position which, if thought through to the end, could lead to such absurd concrete conclusions.