David Harvey, The Condition of Post Modernity – An Inquiry in the Origins of Cultural Change

David Harvey’s investigation into post-modernity reveals a problematic construct that though gives voice to otherness, simultaneously ghettoizes them in an “opaque otherness”. Beginnning with the rise of “modernism” out of Enlightenment thought, Harvey attempts to map the cultural changes that have unfolded from Modernism to post-modernism. Along the way numerous shifts within modernism itself helped to construct the post modern turn in society and academia that so dominated the 1970s and 80s.

Early forms of Enlightenment modernism privileged a scientific rational expression of modernism (Descartes – “I think therefore I am”), however the shift from a rational scientific approach to one driven by aesthetics (think of Rousseau’s reformulation of Descartes, “I feel therefore I am”) meant a rush of “cultural subjectivity”, increasing the individualistic nature of inquiry. Achieving the goals of Enlightenment thought through aesthetic appeals contributed to the “commodification and commercialization of a market for cultural products” placing producers in competition, leading to the growth of “creative destruction.” (22) [“Modernism internalized its own maelstrom of ambiguities, contradictions, and pulsating aesthetic changes at the same time as it sought to affect the aesthetics of daily life. (22)] Harvey carefully notes that modernism was not a monolithic entity but rather one found itself connected to urban growth and differed from city to city. Thus, the pointing out of difference between European modernism and the American variant appears to be an extension of this idea. Ironically, before WWI, modernism in art looked to expose multiple perspectives, revealing alienation, anxiety, and opposed to any hierarchy or bourgesie consumerism. However, the despair and destruction of WWI altered its trajectory. As “high modernism … [became] the establishment arts and practices in society where a corporate capitalist version of the Enlightenment project of development for progress and human emancipation held sway as a political-economic dominant.” (35) The rise of individuals like Le Corbusier did little to ease such developments [such leaders designed for “abstract man” rather than people as can been seen in numerous housing attempts etc.] By the 1960s, resistance to modernism resulted in a form of resistance known as postmodernism [“It was almost as if the universal pretensions of modernity had, when combined with liberal capitalism and imperialism, succeeded so well as to provide a material and political foundation for a cosmopolitan, transnational, hence global movement of resistance to the hegemony of high modernist culture.” (38]

Modernism’s focus on the problem of time [think Stephen Kern’s The Culture of Time and Space in which arose a personalized time etc. that was highly individualized etc] shifted under Post Modernism to space. Post modernists debated how to regard space while modernists continued to apply a larger social purpose. For post modernists, spce in independent, autonomous, and shaped by aesthetics. Post WWII reconstruction of Europe and the expansion of public housing in the US [basically post war urbanization efforts] seemed to reinforce the importance of space. Housing and urban space became the “architecture of spectacle”, as the buildings became a form of communication and the city a discourse unto itself. Post modernism refused to strike “authoritative” or “immutable standards of aesthetic judgment” rather judgements now hinged on how “spectactular” the aesthetics proved to be.

Following The Condition of Postmodernity’s first three chapters, Harvey reveals his Marxist groundings as he focuses on the shift from Fordism (which he acknowledges had its own internal weaknesses and problems but which in comparison to what came provided for unionization and some level of wealth distribution) to flexible accumulation. According to Harvey, post modernism contributed to this development, “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 commodification of cultural forms.” (156). The reorganzition of global economics priviledged “powers of greater coordination”, leading to greater use of finance capital, resulting in a devaluation of commodities and a fall in standard of living. Ironically, the decline in the importance of borders has increased the value of space, “shifts in tempo or in spatial ordering redistribute social power by changing the conditions of monetary gains (in the form of wages, profits, capital gains, the like). Superior command over space has always been viatl aspect of class (and intra class struggle)” (232). Influencing “the production of space” allows organizations or nations to “augment social power”. (233) Representation of space also factors in as Harvey notes “If a picture or map is worth a thousand words, then power in the realms of representation may end up being as important as power over the materiality of spatial organization itself.” (233) historically this has meant that working class movements achieve far more success over place rather than space. The collapse of spatial barriers have increased space’s value, “The active production of places with spatial qualities becomes an important element in spatial competition between localities, regimes, and nations.” (295) [note to self – he goes over Lfeb. Production of space and such on 257].

Media images and advertisements also play a role. They play a “much more integrative role in affecting practices and growth dynamics of capitalism.” (289) [note – paradox of spatial barriers – “the less important spatial barriers, the greater the sensitivity of capital to the variations of place within space, and the greater the incentive for places to be differentiated in ways attractive to capital.” (298) [ he continues to note now money and commodities are the primary carriers of cultural capital] The rise of simulacrum further complicates developments. The use of simulcrm works to erase any trace of labor or social relations from its production but post modernists fail to acknowledge this since many post modernists “disengage” urban spaces from their dependence on functions. [Harvey suggests Post modernist view such space as “autonomous formal system” incorporating a rhetorical and artistic strategy that is independent of historical determinism].

Harvey offers little support for deconstructionism, deriding its efforts for allowing the resurgence of charismatic politics. Deconstructionism accelerated the fragmentation that took place as post modernism spread. If deconstructionism avoids a grand narrative it also fragments to the extent that unifed action seems unlikely as well.

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