Harvey's Condition of Postmodernism

Paper 7, by Zach Tomaszewski

for CIS 701, Spring 2003, taught by Dr. Majid Tehranian

David Harvey has been a Professor of Geography at both Johns Hopkins University and Oxford University. He has also written Social Justice and the City, The Limits to Capital and The Urban Experience. Many scholars consider The Condition of Postmodernity to be a pivotal writing on the topic, along with Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism. In this reading, I focused primarily on the first 100 pages or so in which Harvey explores the contrast between modernism and postmodernism.

Harvey begins his investigation by trying to get an idea of what Postmodernism is. It seems to be some multifaceted aspect to art and cities and thought, something that can neither be firmly controlled or clearly delimited. The biggest clue to the nature of postmodernism seems to be that it is a reaction to or consequence of modernism. Modernism is characterized by a belief in linear progress, absolute truth, rational planning of society, and a standardization of knowledge. Postmodernism, on the other hand, is characterized by an embrace of heterogeneity and difference: pragmatism in philosophy, Kuhn and Feyerabend in science, Foucault and discontinuity in history, indeterminacy and chaos in mathematics, and a concern for "the other" in sociology and anthropology. The primary characteristic is the rejection of any meta-narrative.

If postmodernism is a reaction to modernism, what is modernism? Life, especially modern life, has a sense of fleetingness, ephemerality, and change. The project of modernity and the Enlightenment was to reveal the universal, immutable and eternal factors within all this change. Doing so intended to liberate humankind from physical want or unwarranted superstition. But instead modernism seems to have produced a imprisoning, bureaucratic rationality. Modernism frequently involves endeavors that are either destructively creative--such as demolishing city centers to make way for new, rational designs--or creatively destructive--such as designing and building the atomic bomb.

The first big cracks seemed to appear in the modernist project in the mid-1800s. There were increasing problems translating rational scientific principles into actions. There was a strong focus on generating both language and living conditions with a machine-like efficiency. Modernists became increasingly concerned with how to represent eternal truth. Universal representations seemed be breaking down with such advents as alternative geometries and Saussure's signification of words in relation of other words rather than objects. Questions about the nature of art were raised in the face of new technologies allowing massive reproduction and dissemination.

Despite these questions, modernism still remained the dominant mode of thought. After WWII, a Fordian capital system tempered by Kensyian economics and a US world hegemony make for a relatively stable world. However, starting in the 1960's, there has been backlash against the modernism that had become the dominant paradigm.

This developing "structure of feeling" is postmodernism. In architecture, it is characterized by a welcome for ornamentation and a search for satisfying designs. In city planning, there is less focus on generating an over-arching plan but instead allowing for more organic growth. In culture, there is a plurality of voices. Every group has a unique view to be represented. In art, super-imposition and collage are preferred over a single, unified view. There is a focus on the signifier over the signified. In literature, conflicting and overlapping realities become the focus, rather than simply conflict in a single reality. Deconstructionalism, as a typical postmodern undertaking, searches for the presence or influence of one text in another.

Certainly there is a major acceptance of chaos, discontinuity, and ephemerality as the basic nature of reality. There is no attempt to transcend or define it; there is no meta-narrative. If Truth does exist, it can't be specified. As claimed by Foucault, any power is localized, restricted to the systems of knowledge and types of discourse through which it can work. There is no over-arching power structure. The modern sense of alienation and paranoia implies a coherent opposition; in postmodernity, schizophrenia and personal incoherence is dominant.

Instead of deeper meaning, there is spectacle. Through reproduction, post-modern undertakings give the population what they already want and like--suburbs and Las Vegas rather than high culture. Art is dominated by market forces. Jameson defines post-modernism as "the cultural logic of late capitalism." Yet the question remains whether this new structure is a complete break or simply a reformulation of modernism.

Harvey endeavors to show, as way of illustration, the nature of postmodernism in architecture. For modernism, architecture is large-scale, metro-wide, and planned. Through technology, built environments can be made logical, efficient, and functional, with no ornamental frills. Space is to be shaped for social purposes.

In contrast, post-modernism holds that there exists an fragmented urban fabric in which past forms are superimposed over the new, with a collage of transient uses. It is impossible to command the whole; instead, the best we can do is design for pieces and sub-areas, always sensitive to ephemeral, local needs. Space is to be shaped for aesthetic reasons, such as spectacle, and not for some over-arching social objective.

So post-modernism sees cities as complex, multi-faceted processes. It claims that modernism fails to take into account the fact that "the people" are composed of a number of diverse subgroups, some rich, some poor. Unlike Aldo Rossi, who believes architecture to be the preserving of collective memories, postmodern architects see no meta-language in architecture. They simply quote the past or other locations to pander to people's wants as revealed through market forces, often in eclectic combinations. (However, market forces can certainly favor the rich and gentrification of land use as much or more as any modernist city plan.) Though supposedly there is no top-down plan, postmodern architecture has been frequently used to generate "urban spectacle", such as permanent fairs, that are used in many urban renewal projects.

In the second third of the book, Harvey explores the effects of capitalism on the structure of modern life. To do this, he relies primarily on Marx. Marx posits that money has broken down the social structure and community behind production. We exchange money for products with very little thought about who produced the goods, or how. Capitalism continually struggles to maintain profitability by generating new needs. The main principle of capitalism is to keep money flowing through the economy between buyers and sellers. Yet this leads to booms and busts as production exceeds demand during market fluctuations, which result in layoffs and cutting costs, which in turn results in reduced consumer spending and a further fall in the market. The state can offer some stabilization influence through money control and regulations, but to do so it must first legitimize its use of power. There is a constant conflict between capitalism's fluctuations and the state's forced stability.

Within this setting, modernity and postmodernity derive their aesthetic from some kind of struggle with fragmentation, ephemerality and change. Modernity seeks to rise above by discovering an stable underlying reality; postmodernism embraces it. But why is this fragmented aspect of life so pervasive and why has it seemed to increase since the 1970's? Harvey believes it results from a change in the nature of production and by a change in how we experience space and time.

Capitalism concerns itself with two primary factors. The first is price-setting. This is more complex than "what the market will pay." It is affected by such things as government control, collective social pressures, trade unions, changes in the cost of production, advertising, and opening of new markets. The second factor is the conversion of labor to profit. Traditionally, the use of wage labor places most of the knowledge and decisions relevant to production outside the workers' realm. It requires education, training, and socialization of workers.

From the beginning of the 20th century, the dominant mode of capitalism was Fordism. That is, assembly line factories. Labor and resources were all combined in a single location. Corporations exerted a lot of control over their workers, each doing a single menial task, which meant they could be easily replaced. At least until labor unions gained power, which was possible because the source of production was centralized. Large corporations held greater control over the market and price-structuring. This was a particularly successful model from the end of WWII until the recessions of the mid-1970s.

In the 1970s, there was a shift of a flexible accumulation model of capitalism. This was largely due to new markets opening up, both for production and consumption. The dollar and US hegemony were no longer as strong. There was a greater flexibility in choosing the source of both resources and labor. Advents in communication allowed faster decision making in a distributed environment. There was a greater reliance on a distributed workforce, as well as part-time and temporary labor. Labor unions lost some of their influence.

Besides the decentralizing changes in the means of production, Harvey looks in the last third of his book at our perceptions of space-time. Space is traditionally seen as fixed and objective. Architecture and writing are both laid out in physical space and provide a source of permanence and consistency. As individuals, we carve out our own personal spaces in the world that have significance for us. Time, on the other hand, is the source of fleetingness and change. Time is exchanged for money through labor. Space is controlled by those in power.

But modern times have changed this, compressed it. Fast travel and instant communication have provided an overlay, a collage, of different cultures and locales. We have been denied our traditional temporal sequences and spatial landmarks. Now, Becoming is stressed over Being.

Yet, because we are in the middle of it, it is difficult to say what effects these changes will have. It is difficult to say where postmodernism will go. There seems to be a number of different responses to the current conditions. The first is that of the deconstructionists and the nihilists, who claim there is no meta-narrative. Others over-simplify, denying that the world is that complex, summing it up in a few pithy slogans. Still others find their niches in certain domains--whether political or intellectual or otherwise--that are small enough to find some consistency. And, finally, there are those who attempt to embrace the fragmentation, even, sadly, to the point of complete schizophrenia.

As a clue to communication, Harvey offers little directly. However, if there was every a postmodern field of study, it is communication. With so many theories, each with a different theoretical framework and ontological background, at times it certainly does seem that there is no meta-narrative. Harvey's choices of action are probably most helpful--whether to give up any hope of finding a common thread, whether to restrict ourselves to a single satisfying domain, or to schizophrenically embrace them all. These are difficult choices.

Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1989.