The Condition of Postmodernity (Aloy)
The Condition of Postmodernity
By David Harvey
Blackwell Publishers, Massachusetts, 1990, ix + 378 pp.
This book examines the nature of postmodernism by tracing its discontinuities (and continuities as well) with modernism. The first part of the book explores the differences between modernism and postmodernism (see Table 1.1, p 42), and grapples with the question whether postmodernism represents a radical break with modernism, or simply a reaction against the universalist, totalizing narrative of modernism. But Harvey concedes after a lengthy discussion of the works of Foucault then to Lyotard, to Derrida, to Deleuze and Guttari to Jameson that “there is much more continuity than difference between the broad history of modernism and the movement called postmodernism.” “It seems more sensible to me,” Harvey states, “to see the latter as a particular kind of crisis within the former, one that emphasizes the fragmentary, the ephemeral…while expressing a deep skepticism as to any particular prescriptions as to how the eternal and immutable should be conceived of, represented, or expressed” (p.116).
If part one focuses on distinct cultural forms of postmodernism in relation to modernism, the focal point of part two lies in the way in which social forces have transformed capitalism in the late twentieth century. The basic argument that Harvey wants to make is that the first post-war recession of 1973 marked a shift from “Fordist-Keynesian” condition to what he describes as a “flexible” regime of accumulation. Flexible accumulation is an apt solution to the “rigidity” of Fordism. Harvey describes it as flexibility
with respect to labour processes, labour markets, products, and patterns of consumption. It is characterized by the emergence of entirely new sectors of production, new ways of providing financial services, new markets, and, above all, greatly intensified rates of commercial, technological, and organizational innovation. It has entrained rapid shifts in the patterning of uneven development, both between sectors and between geographical regions, giving rise, for example, to a vast surge in so-called ‘service-sector’ employment as well as to entirely new industrial ensembles in hitherto underdevelopment regions…(p.147)
The shift from Fordism to post-Fordist condition has led to a new round of “time-space compression” (the subject of discussion in Part III) in the capitalist world in which “the time horizon of both private and public decision-making have shrunk, while satellite communication and declining transport costs have made it increasingly possible to spread those decisions immediately over an ever wider and variegated space” (p.147). The intersection of the rise of postmodernist cultural forms and the emergence of more flexible modes of capital accumulation has changed the way which in time and space are experienced. But if set against the basic rules of capitalistic accumulation, it appears that these changes, Harvey argues, are “more as shifts in surface appearance rather than as signs of the emergence of some entirely new post-capitalist or even postindustrial society” (p. vii).
Following a materialist approach to understanding time and space, Harvey, in part three, argues that “objective conceptions of time and space are necessarily created through material practices and processes which serve to reproduce social life” (p.204). Harvey surveys in chapter 13 different ways in which theorists such as de Certeau, Bachelard, Foucault, and Bourdieu have conceptualized space, and how power relations are implicated in spatial and temporal practices. At the heart of part three is a concept that Harvey calls “time-space compression.” The term refers to processes that resulted in a radical change of the qualities of time and space that we are, in Harvey’s words, “forced to alter, sometimes in quite radical ways, how we represent the world to ourselves” (p.240). The book concludes in Part four by turning to social and moral questions surrounding postmodernism and the condition of postmodernity.
Now, I wish to discuss further topics such as “time-space compression” and postmodernism and the city for obvious reasons; such topics are relevant to my dissertation project. Let me begin with postmodernism and the city.
In postmodernism and the city, Harvey makes the following points:
1. Postmodernism signifies “a break with the modernist idea of planning and development,” largely characterized by “large-scale, metropolitan-wide, technologically rational and efficient urban plans” (p.66).
2. The urban fabric is seen by postmodernists as necessarily “fragmented, a ‘palimpsest’ [the term suggests ways in which the traces of earlier ‘inscriptions’ remain as a continual feature of the ‘text’ of culture, giving it its particular density and character] of past forms superimposed upon each other, and a ‘collage’ of current uses, many of which may be ephemeral” (p.66).
3. A distinction can be made here between modernism and postmodernism with respect to the way in which space is conceptualized. Modernists see “space as something to be shaped for social purposes and therefore always subservient to the construction of a social project.” Postmodernists on the other hand see “space as something independent and autonomous, to be shaped according to aesthetics aims and principles which have nothing necessarily to do with any overarching social objective” (p.66). Another way of distinguishing them is simply to say that while modernists work within a certain plan, postmodernists eschew planning in favor of design.
4. How do we account for such a shift? The “built environment” is one; how a city looks and how its spaces are organized? Architecture and urban design are crucial for understanding the city as a discourse the way in which Barthes described it. For example, in the wake of the destruction caused by WW II and its aftermath, there was an emphasis on the reconstruction and renewal of the urban fabric with a strong “adoption of the industrialized construction systems and rational planning procedures that modernist architects had long proposed” (p.69), not to mention the role played by the state in carrying out this project such as the elimination of slums, building schools, hospitals, housing and so on. The underprivileged class “get[s] swept under the rug” by urban planning.
5. Harvey has also described postmodern architecture as an “anti-avant-gardist (unwilling to impose solutions, as the high modernists, the bureaucratic planners, and the authoritarian developers tended—and still tend—to do)” (p.76). The proponents of postmodern architecture privilege the aesthetics of diversity and ways in which “symbolic richness” of urban forms are articulated. However, postmodern architecture and urban design grapples with market-driven demands that “carries with it the danger of pandering to the rich and the private consumer rather than to the poor and to public needs, that is in the end…a situation [in which] the architect is powerless to change” (p.77). For e.g., free-market populism “puts the middle classes into the enclosed and protected spaces of shopping malls and atria, but it does nothing for the poor except to eject them into a new and quite nightmarish postmodern landscape of homelessness” (p.77).
6. Focusing on heterogeneity and difference, po-mo takes “architecture away from the ideal of some unified meta-language and breaks it down into highly differentiated discourses. The end result is one in which fragmentation of urban spatial forms. As Harvey puts it, “The multivalency of architecture…renders it ‘radically schizophrenic by necessity’” (p.83).
In his discussion of time-space compression, Harvey makes the following assertion:
1. This notion refers to the way in which capitalism has changed the way time and space are organized in relation to human activity. Harvey deploys the notion of “speeding-up” in understanding time-space compression. The “speeding-up” of the economic and social processes has led to the way in which we experience time and space; in that space and time do not anymore appear to be an obstacle in terms of how we organize our daily life. The re-configuration of time and space is described by Harvey in the following words, “space appears to shrink to a ‘global village’ of telecommunications and ‘spaceship earth’ of economic and ecological interdependencies…and…time horizons shorten to the point where the present is all there is…” (p.240).
2. The transition to flexible accumulation was marked by a speed-up in production through vertical disintegration characterized by subcontracting, outsourcing and so on, which reversed the Fordist tendency towards vertical intergration.
3. Advertising is crucial in the production of commodity and in an increasingly consumerist culture. But, as Harvey puts it, advertising “is no longer built around the idea of informing or promoting in the ordinary sense, but is increasingly geared to manipulating desires and tastes through images that may or may not have anything to do with the product to be sold…” (p.287), prompting Baudillard to declare Marxist analysis of commodity production irrelevant “because capitalism is now predominantly concerned with the production of signs, images, and sign systems rather than with commodities themselves” (p.287).
4. What does it mean in the context of globalization? For Harvey globalization means the shrinking of space and the shortening of time which resulted in the speeding up of the pace of life in which the time to do things and the experiential distance between disparate locations in space becomes shorter.