Book Review: The Condition of Postmodernity, David Harvey

By Steve Best

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.

The Condition of Postmodernity, David Harvey, 1989. London: Basil Blackwell. 378 pp.