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DAVID HARVEY, THE CONDITION OF POSTMODERNITY

David Harvey. THE CONDITION OF POSTMODERNITY: AN ENQUIRY INTO THE
ORIGINS OF CULTURAL CHANGE. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1990.

BIBLIOGRAPHIC AND BIOGRAPHIC
Paperback. The book has 378 pages, includes an index. Seven plus pages of references include
the usual theorists. Architecture, urban design, geographical topics are numerous, as are topics in
capitalism, finance, and economics. No references are dated later than 1989.
David Harvey is Professor of Geography at The Johns Hopkins University. From 1987 to 1993
he held the Halford Mackinder Chair of Geography at Oxford University. His previous books
include Social Justice and the City, the Limits to Capital, and The Urban Experience. (From the
back cover.)
CONTENTS
The argument
Part I The passage from modernity to postmodernity in contemporary culture. This contains six
chapters, including Introduction, Modernity and modernism, Postmodernism, Postmodernism in
the city: architecture and urban design, Modernization, POSTmodernISM or postMODERNism?
Part II The political-economic transformation of late twentieth-century capitalism. This contains
five chapters, including Introduction, Fordism, From Fordism to flexible accumulation,
Theorizing the transition, Flexible accumulation--solid transformation or temporary fix?
Part III The experience of space and time. This contains seven chapters, including Introduction,
Individual spaces and times in social life, Time and space as sources of social power, The time
and space of the Enlightenment project, Time-space compression and the rise of modernism as a
cultural force, Time-space compression and the postmodern condition, Time and space in the
postmodern cinema.
Part IV The condition of postmodernity. This contains nine chapters, including Postmodernity as
a historical condition, Economics with mirrors, Postmodernism as the mirror of mirrors, Fordist
modernism versus flexible postmodernism, or the interpenetration of opposed tendencies in
capitalism as a whole, The tranformative and speculative logic of capital, The work of art in an
age of electronic reproduction and image banks, Responses to time-space compression, The
crisis of historical materialism, Cracks in the mirrors, fusions at the edges.
SUMMARY NOTES ON THE TEXT
ECONOMIC/FINANCIAL BASIS OF THE POSTMODERN: In the most general terms, Harvey
may be said to argue that the many manifestations of postmodernity flow from the basic
operation of capital. He sees the operation of capital as a constant in the history of the past two
centuries; its essential influence in postmodernity thus makes postmodernity less than unique but
rather a special case of culture in a line of development that he traces back to the mid-nineteenth
century in Europe and America.
Harvey gives a quite vivid description of the sensibility of postmodernism, with special insight
drawn from his expertise in architecture and urban design.
His economic rationale for what he describes is set up as a theoretical model in his Part II. He
adopts the hypothesis of the so-called "regulation school" in viewing "recent events as a
transition in the regime of accumulation and its associated mode of social and political
regulation." (p. 121)
He sees postmodernity rising from the transformation of a modern system of mass production
with a relatively fixed system of capital accumulation. He depends heavily on Marx's theory of
capital for his model. He sets up "Fordism" to describe the modernist emphasis on
standardization, mass production, labor stability. He describes the instabilities inherent in
Fordism and the transformation in the 1970s to "flexible accumulation" as a new way of
operating capitalism and its financial markets.
SPACE-TIME COMPRESSION: For Harvey the most important cultural change in the
transformation from Fordism to flexible accumulation--and from modernity to postmodernity--
was the change in the human experience of space and time (Part III). His Plate 3.1 (p.241) gives
a graphic rendering of his main point. It shows four maps of the world in descending order of
size:
• 1500-1840 ("best average speed of horse drawn coaches and sailing ships was 10 m.p.h.")
• 1850-1930 ("steam locomotives averaged 65 m.p.h. and steam ships averaged 36 m.p.h.")
• 1950s ("propeller aircraft 300-400 m.p.h.")
• 1960s ("jet passenger aircraft 500-700 m.p.h.").
These increasing speeds of travel illustrate that in each phase the sense of global space changed;
and with a change in the sense of space came a correlative change in the sense of time. Harvey
carries this obvious point into a penetrating presentation of the change in sensibility, a change in
the sense of reality itself, accompanying the changes in travel speeds.
[NOTE: Jean Baudrillard, Radical Thought about half way through the essay discusses the
compression of space-time. He is eager to show how it reinforces his insight that simulacra ARE
reality now.] Harvey argues that the change in the sense of space and time carried over to the
financial arena. With faster and far-flung telecommunications, financial markets came to
encompass the entire globe in very short time spans.
At the same time, production of real commodities ceased to be essential to the capitalist system.
Through the space-time compression, the financial system came to be de-linked from active
production of real commodities. The instabilities in capitalist production and a "radical shift in
the manner in which value gets represented as money" (p.296) after 1973 further caused the
change to a postmodern mode of capitalism. Harvey here links his argument with that of
Baudrillard's concept of simulacra: "The interweaving of simulacra in daily life brings together
different worlds (of commodities) in the same space and time. But it does so in such a way as to
conceal almost perfectly any trace of origin, of the labour processes that produced them, or of the
social relations implicated in their production./ The simulacra can in turn become the reality."
(p.300)
Grounding the perceptual and social condition of postmodernity in the change in the way capital
operates, as outlined above, Harvey then (pp. 300-307) discusses postmodern reality. He links to
references to Baudrillard, McHale, and Foucault. He does this by keying off of the idea of the
"simulacrum" as a commodity. From McHale he draws the idea of multiple and simultaneous
onotologies ("a potential as well as an actual plurality of universes" p.301) at the heart of
postmodernism. "Disruptive spatiality [resulting from multiple ontologies] triumphs over the
coherence of perspective and narrative in postmodern fiction, in exactly the same way that
imported beers coexist with local brews, local employment collapses under the wieght of foreign
competition, and all the divergent spaces of the world are assembled nightly as a collage of
images upon the television screen." (p. 302).
Harvey sees two contrasting sociological effects of this ubiquitous lack of coherence in daily life:
(1) People decide that they should (must?) take advantage "of all the divergent possibilities" and
cultivate "a whole series of simulacra as milieux of escape, fantasy, and distraction." (p. 302)
[NOTE: Our Charlie in The Table Talks tends to have this approach.] He calls on McHale to
suggest that creative expression of postmodern sensibility is "mimetic of something"--the
something being the fragmentation, ephemerality, and collage.
(2) But the second effect identified by Harvey is the opposite: faced with the fragmentation,
ephemerality, and collage, people reach out for "personal or collective identity, the search for
secure morrings in a shifting world." (p. 302) This strongly emphasizes the connection between
place and social identity (the Bosnian syndrome); but that intensifies fragmentation as people
grasp for their particular place. Second, this reaching out emphasizes "the aesthetics of space."
(p. 303) This emphasis on specific spaces, as places, runs against the universal functionalism in
space sought by modernism, especially in the city. Harvey relates this tendency to the dangers of
a new totalitarianism, arising from the estheticization of space. (p. 305): "If aesthetic production
has now been so thoroughly commodified and thereby commercially subsumed within a political
economy of cultural production, how can we possibly stop that circle from closing onto a
produced, and hence all too easily manipulated, aestheticization of a globablly mediatized
politics?" (p.305). [NOTE: The convergence of politics and esthetics discussed by Harvey
reminds us of the aims of John Kennedy, Jr., in his new magazine, George.]
Harvey sums up his economically grounded analysis of the sensibility of postmodernism as
follows: "The intensity of time-space compression in Western capitalism since the 1960s, with
all of its congruent features of excessive ephemerality and fragmentation in the political and
private as well as in the social realm, does seem to indicate an experiential context that makes the
condition of postmodernity somewhat special. But by putting this condition into its historical
context, as part of a history of successive waves of time-space compression generated out of the
pressures of capital accumulation with its perpetual search to annihilate space through time and
reduce turnover time, we can at least pull the condition of postmodernity into the range of a
condition accessible to historical materialist analysis and interpretation." (pp. 306-7)
Harvey draws on his expertise as a geographer to show the differing sensibilities that produced
maps in the medieval period, in the Renaissance (with emphasis on the rules of perspective), in
the Enlightenment (which carried the perspectivism of the Renaissance to its fulfillment), in the
period starting in 1848, when time and space began to compress in ways that undid the
assumptions of the Enlightenment, and in the further compression of time-space since the early
1970s, resulting in a postmodern condition.
In Part IV, Harvey evaluates postmodernity as a historical condition, still seeing historical
development through the prism of an economic-financial analysis. He sees characteristics in the
postmodern culture that are not unique although they are distinctive. They emerge in his view
from the dynamics of capital overaccumulation (p. 327). He connects crises of overaccumulation
with strong esthetic movements, including the estheticization of politics. An era turns to esthetics
and away from scientific and moral reasoning under conditions of confusion and uncertainty,
which we see in extreme compression of time-space as in the 1960s. He says that since 1973 "the
experience of time and space has changed, the confidence in the association between scientific
and moral judgements has collapsed, aesthetics has triumphed over ethics as a prime focus of
social and intellectual concern, images dominate narratives, ephemerality and fragmentation take
precedence over eternal truths and unified politics, and explanations have shifted from the realm
of material and political-economic groundings towards a consideration of autonomous cultural
and political practices." (p. 328) [NOTE, 22 August 2001: 1973 was the year the Bretton Woods
accord on the control of international capital ended. Both Fredric Jameson and James Mittelman
date the start of the postmodern period from 1973.]
He devotes the remainder of the book to supporting his argument that postmodernity is not a
fundamental break in western culture but a shift in sensibility that can be explained by "historical
materialist enquiry." He even thinks (heretically, from a postmodern viewpoint) that
postmodernity is "capable of theorization by way of the meta-narrative of capitalist development
that Marx proposed." (p.328)
Harvey presents a table (p. 340) designed to illustrate that the opposed tendencies of "Fordist
modernism" and "flexible postmodernism" interpenetrate as characteristics of capitalist society
as a whole. He thinks that this interpenetration "helps us dissolve the categories of both
modernism and postmodernism into a complex of oppositions expressive of the cultural
conditions of capitalism." (p. 339).
In the chapter on "Responses to time-space compression" (p. 350), Harvey criticizes the
deconstructionists. He links them to one of the responses to time-space compression, that of a
"shell-shocked, blasé, or exhausted silence, "a submission to the overwhelming sense of how
vast, intractable, and outside any individual or even collective control everything is." (p. 350)
The second response to time-space compression that he identifies is "a free-wheeling denial of
the complexity of the world, and a penchant for the representation of it in terms of highly
simplified rhetorical propositions." (p. 351).
The third response is "an intermediate niche for political and intellectual life which spurns grand
narrative but which does cultivate the possibility of limited action." (p. 351) [NOTE: Haber may
fall into this category.] This leads to community, locality, but it slides "into parochialism,
myopia, and self-referentiality in the face of the universalizing force of capital circulation."
(p.351)
The fourth response is "to try and ride the tiger of the time-space compression through
construction of a language and an imagery that can mirror and hopefully command it." (p.351)
Baudrillard, Virilio, and Jameson are examples.
Finally, Harvey sees cracks in postmodernist thought that suggest a "subtle evolution, perhaps
reaching a point of self-dissolution into something different." He hopes so.(p. 358-9).
QUOTABLE QUOTES
The Argument Harvey presents "The Argument" of his work succinctly and it follows in full:
"There has been a sea-change in cultural as well as in political-economic practices since around
1972.
"This sea-change is bound up with the emergence of new dominant ways in which we experience
space and time.
"While simultaneity in the shifting dimensions of time and space is no proof of necessary or
causal connection, strong a priori grounds can be adduced for the proposition that there is some
kind of necessary relation between the rise of postmodernist cultural forms, the emergence of
more flexible modes of capital accumulation, and a new round of 'time-space compression' in the
organization of capitalism.
"But these changes, when set against the basic rules of capitalistic accumulation, appear more
as shifts in surface appearance rather than as signs of the emergence of some entirely new
postcapitalist or even postindustrial society." (p. vii.)
EVALUATION, SIGNIFICANCE, RELATION TO OTHER WORKS
Harvey is an extremely valuable study for the following reasons.
• OVERALL THEORETICAL EXPLANATION: He attempts to encompass the whole
shift in culture in his theory. This helps us to put the critical theory of others into a
perspective otherwise unavailable, those such as Baudrillard and those offering up
literary theory. We find that his capitalist-economic concept fits our observations of what
is happening in the corporate world. His descriptions of the social/cultural consequences
of the shift are graphic, various, and useful. His emphasis on space-time compression
accords with the thought of many others. The postmodernist preoccupation with the
meanings of space (as in Deleuze & Guattari's Thousand Plateaus) receive
reinforcement here. We find this preoccupation with space-time compression useful in
our study of "distance learning" through electronic information technologies. We are
sympathetic to the evolutionary-historical way Harvey sees the developments leading up
to postmodernism.
Harvey is a formulator of theories intended to explain the observable situation. As such
he tends to become formulaic. The thinning out of modernist sensibility may have
multiple explanations, not merely one of materialist capitalist process. But this is to
quarrel with the very strength of what Harvey offers up, a coherent argument that
attempts to tell us how we got into this situation. Like THE PROGRAMME, he even, at
the end, wants to point to a way beyond it.
• THE FOLK AROUND THE FIRE: Harvey gives strong support to THE
PROGRAMME's emphasis on the "coping" process at the heart of cultural change. We
explore that in The Genesis Document and in an essay. He sees trauma as a consequence
of time-space compression (p. 286) and sees various coping mechanisms (see above). He
also seems to want to see our culture move beyond the most disorienting aspects of
postmodernism at the very end of his book. He draws a useful comparison between those
who would embrace the transitoriness of current culture and those who feel a need to
resist. He sites Toffler in this regard (p. 286, 289.)
• "AGILE" CORPORATIONS: Stephen Goldman et al provide an insightful description of
the postmodern corporation, characterized by agility in an uncertain and ever-changing
environment for competition. Harvey's theoretical approach to the postmodern condition
through capitalist analysis supports the practical views we get from Goldman. Unlike
Goldman, however, Harvey seems unwilling to accept "change and uncertainty" as a
persistent given; rather, he acknowledges the cultural and psychological instabilities
caused by these conditions, and he seems disposed to look beyond them toward a new
formulation not yet identified. If such comes into focus, the practice of capitalism in the
postmodern, agile corporation would be affected, and the Goldman insight would have to
be altered in some still-unpredictable way. We think that a concern for social values and
the integrity of individuals may be the source of the break in the "agile" environment. See
pp. 284-290 for a useful insight into the change in the life of companies after the
"Fordist" era declined.
We think that the weakness in the corporate"agility" movement is that it will be
unprepared to react profitably and responsibly when the society's intolerance of the
"constant change and uncertainty" peaks at some point in the future. While corporations
are busy accepting those conditions and working within them, other societal forces are
already emerging to reduce the unacceptable levels of discomfort. These forces will
emerge through political, artistic, religious, and other avenues of the society. Harvey
senses this possibility better than the "agility" practitioners.
• MATERIALIST/MARXIST CONNECTIONS: Harvey constructs his entrance into the
postmodern world on the foundation of a Marxist interpretation of capital. This gives him
a kinship with The Frankfurt School. His unwillingness to give up an overarching cause
for the rise of the postmodern echoes the imperatives of The Institute for Social Research.
Harvey perpetuates the sense of critical theory established decades earlier by The
Frankfurt School; he thus spins out a conceptual thread that THE PROGRAMME values.
• THE PARADOX OF THE POSTMODERN: Throughout our readings we find a paradox
in postmodernity that seems close to the heart of it. We see a celebration of fragmentation
("difference," the particular, etc.) under way. It is embraced as a principle while
unification (globalization) becomes the defining power in money, communications
(Internet, World Wide Web), and commodified (transnational) culture. This unifying pull
differs, however, from that of the great modernist era: it is not likely to come under
centralized control. Harvey connects the globalizing of the world's financial system (pp.
163-166) with the transition in norms, habits, and political and cultural attitudes since
about 1970 (pp.170-172). The following quote captures his thought: "...the more flexible
motion of capital emphasizes the new, the fleeting, the ephemeral, the fugitive, and the
contingent...rather than the more solid values implanted under Fordism....rampant
individualism fits into place as a necessary...condition for the transition from Fordism to
flexible accumulation....But...at...times of fragmentation and economic insecurity...the
desire for stable values leads to a heightened emphasis upon the authority of basic
institutions," which we see in neo-conservatism. (p.171)
BERTENS ON HARVEY: Hans Bertens provides a lengthy explanation of this book (pp. 220-
229). Evaluating, Bertens finds Harvey short in incorporating "difference" and "otherness" into
his application of his modified materialist critique.
BEST ON HARVEY: Steve Best of the University of Texas reviewed Harvey's book. He found
it a useful addition to Fredric Jameson's interpretation of postmodernity as a form of "late
capitalism." He found it short on new theory to connect the cultural manifestations of
postmodernism to the economic dynamics of capitalism. Best's review is in Illuminations at the
Critical Theory page of the University of Texas. Click on Best on the Critical Theory homepage.
Access to the article may be limited, depending on one's browser. (3 Jan 97)

25 December 1995; updated 3 January 1977.
Edited and links updated 22 August 2001.

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