The Postmodern Urban Condition, Michael Dear, 2000

Postmodernism has seen better days hasn’t it? Writing in 1989, anthropologist David Harvey offered a stinging critique of its effects. Though meant to create new oppositions and spaces for marginalized peoples, a project not unlike that of current transnationalists, post-modernity revealed a problematic construct that gives voice to the “other”, but also simultaneously ghettoizes them in an “opaque otherness”. Five years earlier, Frederick Jameson provided similar views. According to the renowned Duke Professor postmodernism’s spatialization textualizes all in its path from bodies to the state to consumption itself. While Postmodernism creates space for marginalized groups it remains “’merely’ a cultural dominant as it coexists with other resistant and heterogenous forces which it has a vocation to subdue and incorporate.” Each author offered numerous other criticisms from postmodernism’s ahistorical reproduction of architecture and mass produced goods to its ability to undermine class unity and relations to its loss of place. Put simply, Jameson and Harvey would view Urban Outfitter t-shirts not as cleverly kitchy but rather emblematic of the very capitalist processes that subsume original work. Hipsters recycling mass produced commodified goods, even in the name of irony, receive very little appreciation from Messers Jameson and Harvey.

Despite such prominent critics, Michael J. Dear’s The Postmodern Urban Condition (2000) attempts to rehabilitate much maligned postmodernity. As a geographer, Deer acknowledges that postmodernity’s emphasis on space (over modernism’s fascination with time) has long appealed to his particular discipline, “postmodernism thought represents a long overdue reassertion of the significance of space in social thought.” (2) In this way, Dear applies his critical eye to Los Angeles, a city he seems to view as the perfect medium for the postmodern condition, “Los Angeles is a polycentric, polycultural, polyglot metropolis regarded by many as the prototype of contemporary urbanization. It is a burgeoning capital of the Pacific Rim, undergoing a simultaneous deindustrialization and reindustrialization It is an ungovernable city of intense socio-economic polarization, where (it is said) a glittering ‘First World” sits atop an impoverished ‘Third World” substructure. Los Angeles is a collection of theme parks, where privatized, partitioned spaces exist for all tastes – communities of industry, leisure, sexual preference and so on. The residents of such packaged dreamscapes evince some of the most fantastic consumption patterns in the world. But equally importantly, they have produced a multicultural mosaic in which the existing social contract is under stress.” (3) With this in mind, Dear focuses on issues of city and land use planning especially “intentionality” meaning “how and why certain key players came together at a particular place and time to create the urban places.” (3)

Part of postmodernism’s difficulty lay in its multivalent meaning. Bandied about to describe all sorts of moments, events, people, commodities, art, and so forth, the one thing all its connotations seem to agree with is that postmodern was meant to represent a break from the past. Dear focuses on three aspects of postmodern thought, “the cultural artifacts of cities; the rise of the era of postmodernity; and the revolution in the way we think.” (5) Dear reveals an impetus that seems less interested in the discovery of irrefutable truths than in uncovering the “processes and peoples” that influence the way we come to “know” things.

The tendency of academics and others to judge cities by the dated Chicago School standards serves as Dear’s first target. Reviewing the rise of the LA School from 1973 on, Dear outlines Rayner Banham’s four ecologies (Surfburbia, the foothills, the plains of ID, and autopia), Douglas Suisman’s privileging of LA Boulevards (“Suisman argues that boulevards do more than establish an organizational pattern; they constitute “the irreducible armature of the ciy’s public space” and are chared with social and political significance that cannot be ignored. These vertebral connectors today form an integral link among the region’s municipalities.” (13)) and Edward Soja’s “decentered, decentralized metropolis powered by the insistent fragmentation of post-Fordism, i.e. an increasingly flexible, disorganized regime of capitalist accumulation”. Notably for Soja, Los Angeles maintained a center but one that operated as a Foucaltian panoptican a “strategic surveillance point for the state’s exercise of social control.” Spreading outward from the center extends a “mélange” of “wedges and citadels, interspersed between corridors formed by boulevards.” A fragmented crazy quilt held together by “economic rationality.” (13) Clearly, Mike Davis’ carceral Los Angeles owes much to the work of Soja.

Dear threads these three theorists together to illustrate that there is no ONE Los Angeles, “postmodernism is, in this context about complication, which is manifest in Los Angeles as an intense localization and fragmentation of social process … One way to understand Los Angeles, then, is as an accretion of the local. There is never a single reality to the city.” (14) Still as others, like Jason Hackworth in The Neoliberal City, have pointed out, globalization has amplified the intense localization that seems so prevalent. The Post-Fordism search for cheap labor and the increased capital flows of global markets resulted in a national shift whereby traditional Eastern and Midwestern cities deindustrialized while the sunbelt “(re)industrialized”. As Dear notes, Los Angeles “in a … typically postmodern way … experiencing both simultaneously.” What has this meant socially? Dear acknowledges the accusations of Jameson and Harvey admitting “[that] the postmodern metropolis is increasingly minoritized and polarized along class, income, racial and ethnic lines.” (15)
As previously discussed, for much of the twentieth century, the Chicago Model’s concentric circle model dominated urbanist discourse. Developed by University of Chicago sociologist E.W. Burgess in the 1920s and 1930s, the Chicago Model reflected aspects of Progressive scientific approaches and positivism. Based on the assumption that cities would maintain high levels of immigration and that the Central Business District (CBD) would form the central core of the city with everything emanating outward, Dear notes that the “ecological metaphors invoked to describe this dynamic were invasion, succession, and segregation, by which populations gradually filtered outwards from the center as their status and level of assimilation progressed.” (18) Dear asserts that Burgess knew that the model broadly generalized and never expected people to take it so literally, perhaps letting the Chicago sociologist off the hook for many of the criticisms that trailed in its wake. Homer Hoyt’s sector theory followed in the 1930s in which the urbanist suggested metropolises “grow in star shaped rather than concentric form, along highways that radiate from a centers with contrasting land uses in the interstices.” (18) Hoyt recognized that “non-rational” factors like promotion or media could affect settlement as well as the fact that sectors might not be homogenous at any one point. Later C.D. Harris and E. Ullman proposed the multiple nuclei theory in which they argued cities embrace a cellular structure. Organized around various nuclei, rather than a single CBD, land uses emerge around each which the two urbanists chalked up to “a consequence of accessibility induced variations in the land rent surface and agglomeration (dis) economics”, Dear summarizes. (19) For Harris and Ullman social/economic effects, history, and international factors combined to affect this development, though once established around a nuclei, “general growth forces reinforce their pre-existing pattern.” (19) Even though many urbanists refute the Chicago School model, its influence persists, as Dear notes, even renowned bomb thrower/urbanist Mike Davis has employed a concentric approach when mapping out “ecologies of fear”.

In response to these models and in an effort to promote Los Angeles as the premier modern city, the LA school developed. If Rayner Banham served as a “proto-LA School” disciple (think in terms of how The Stooges and Iggy Pop were considered “proto-punk” but not punk if that makes any sense), the first real official explanation of the LA School arrived in 1986. Though adherents attempted in the late 1980s to develop a coherent Chicago School approach, thinkers like Davis, Soja, Jennifer Wolch, Dear, and others failed to come to any agreements. Marco Cenzatti’s 1993 pamphlet established some sense of coherence, presenting LA not as a finished product, a harbinger of the future or even totally unique but rather, as Dear points out, “a suggestive archetype – a polyglot, polycentric, polycultural pastiche that is somehow engaged in the rewriting of the American social contract.” (21)

If postmodernism found public expression in the media and arts of the 1960s and 70s, it found itself quickly absorbed in numerous other areas, architecture being one of them. When applied to architecture the term referred to a break from modernist style, a rejection of modernism’s formality and austerity. Rather than selecting a particular point of departure, postmodern architecture attempted to “comment on previous stylistic genres, often caustically and with wit” observes Dear. Such buildings exhibited a self referential position, thus existing as “symbol and commentary.” (33) One of the problems with this style Dear suggests is that even though such structures offered architects the opportunity to comment on various epochs and styles, few among the public had any idea what these references were/are. One of the most prominent critics of postmodern architecture has been the aforementioned Jameson. For Jameson, one of postmoderism’s weaknesses, most visible in its architecture, is its historicism or the random cannibalizing of all past styles. Postmodernisms evoke a past simulacra (his and David Harvey’s word not mine) which provides a duplicate of the past or a duplicate interpretation of the past which is then reproduced ad-nasuem until it becomes our idea of the past and can be mistaken for the very past it represents. The use of simulacra and postmodernism’s focus on alienations leads to “feelings” or “intensities” within its works but they remain impersonal unlike modernism. Some of this relates to commodities and cultural production. The machinery of capitalism for Jameson has on some level infected postmodernism which displays an affinity for schlock or kitsch more than anything else; a fetish for the mass-produced, turning away from the cultural pretensions of high modernism. Fragmentation as always proves a point of debate. For example, Jameson suggests that postmodernisms tendencies to look for breaks or ruptures and to emphasize smaller individual experiences has contributed to language’s ability to describe and communicate while reducing the power of literary devices such as parody. In regard to language, the existential emphasis on personal experience and the fragmentation of these experiences and interests makes understanding, the main point of language, difficult. Parody no longer suffices to hold the same weight because fragmentation makes it harder to find the single cultural dominant with which the audience can widely identify. All this in turn leads to a loss of place. The average person according to Jameson, can no longer map their own place in the multinational, decentralized, urban metropolis. Postmodernism locates humanity in a sort of hyperspace where “place in the U.S. no longer exists or it exists at much feebler levels.” (121) Space itself is not the culprit but capitalism and other global systems, “The problem is still one of representation, and also of representability: we know that we are caught within these more complex global networks, because we palpably suffer the prolongations of corporate space everywhere in our daily lives. Yet we have no way of thinking about them, of modeling them, however abstractly, in our mind.” (127) Finally, nature as well, which had been an aspect of modernism, finds little room to emerge in postmodernism since the “essential homogenization of a social space and experience now uniformly modernized and mechanized” has replaced it. (366) Like Dear and others, Jameson viewed Los Angeles as the “ultimate effacement of place”. (56)
Like a modern day Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, postmodernism endures harsh criticism from both the right and left. The right attacks it for its relativism which undermines morality and accepted traditions, even questioning nationalistic identities. In contrast, the left critiques it for undermining class relations and feminism while presenting the “other” in a opaque way the does little to diminish the “otherness” applied to such groups. For many, postmodernism exudes an apolitical nature that the left finds damaging.

Dear spends a fair amount of time in The Postmodern Urban Condition refuting many of postmodernity’s critics. For example, Dear takes Harvey to task for ignoring issues like gender and feminism, obscuring non-Marxian social theory, failing to examine text and language, and applying too little thought to his “own historical materialism … his mental constructs remain untainted by the spirit and currents of postmodernity.” Edward Soja’s Postmodern Geographies also receives Dear’s attentions. For Dear, Postmodern Geographies greatest flaw is its “commitment to a single theoretical agenda – an action that is fundamentally antiethical to the postmodern project. Postmodernism celebrates difference and undecidabilty; it categorically rejects the hegemony of a single perspective.” (76) Moreover, Dear considers “postmodern geography” to be an oxymoron, “a postmodernist would axiomatically write postmodern geographies.” (77) In addition, Soja employs a historical materialism that favors the economic over political, cultural, and social aspects. This means, like Harvey feminism receives very little attention, while “elements of social reproduction (race, gender, family, education, etc.) … and the whole question of culture” are largely ignored. Dear also laments Soja’s foreclosure on the subject of social action. The problem with this writes Dear is that if “postmodernism has emphasized that rationality is no longer an innocent category upon which to base social action …what is available to put in its place? Soja’s suppression of this dilemma (and its consequences) is made all the more remarkable by his frequent reference to the role of planning and the state in capitalist urbanization.” (77) Ultimately for Dear and others, specifically Rosalyn Deutsche, both authors works illustrated an undemocratic and monological nature.
While The Postmodern Urban Condition spends a considerable amount of space debating postmodernity’s critics, the latter half of the work investigates postmodernism’s place in film, the nation-state, and personal politics and modernist and postmodernist urban planning respectively. For our purposes here, the focus will be on the last, urban planning.

The importance of movement for Los Angeles both literally and metaphorically emerge as central to its identity. Transportation systems seemed to always keep the region in motion while also constantly changing. As Dear points out, Banham suggested the city and its outlying regions reamed a “huge tablet of movement” always under going change by the subsequent generations. If railroads began to organize the region, they gave way to streetcars which then receded in favor of automobiles. Each contributed to settlement and neighborhood patterns, though cars more than the other two lent themselves to the decentralized organization, “Streetcars had facilitated, suburbanization primarily along clearly defined corridors; the car, however, permitted urban development in any area where a road could be cleared.” (107) Subsequently, “freeway rationality” replaced transit oriented planning, “the freeways ultimately created the signature landscape of modernist Los Angeles – a flat totalization, uniting a fragmented mosaic of polarized neighborhoods segregated by race, ethnicity, and class.” (110) However, modernism gave way to postmodernism as social, political and economic structural change occurred “against the backdrop of obsolescent institutional frameworks.” (110) Moreover, if there is a disconnect between modernist planning of earlier epochs and the new postmodern urbanism that SoCal has come to represent, part of the incongruity stems from the absorbtion of urban planning by the state while in recent decades land use planning has become an enterprise dominated by private interests.

In terms of the privatization of planning and city governance, Dear echoes many of the same concerns/observations of the aforementioned Jason Hackworth. Like architecture, no one approach sufficed, rather in planning a sort of “Pastiche of practice” developed. This allowed planners to claim their ideas remained free from formality and previously systemized theories. If architecture attempted similar feats, it at least rationalized such efforts through connections to art, history, and philosophy. In contrast, urban planning sought no such identifications choosing to present itself as unilaterally correct. The subsequent built environments required state and civil society legitimacy which planners provided but unwittingly became facilitators as comodification of land and urban space became subject more to capital flows and private interests. Such “disorganized capitalism” suggested a turning away from the state. Similarly, Hackworth argues that neoliberalism and its financial innovations, like bond ratings and international capital/institutions helped accelerate and naturalize these processes. Again like Hackworth, Dear points to the “restructuring of the welfare state” (cutbacks, rechanneled funding, limited programming), a reduction in regulations, and commodification of services previously the responsibility of the municipal and state governments. Thus, public private partnerships, in some ways, enable the private sector to direct the state panning apparatus. Additionally, like Hackworth, Dear bemoans the naturalization of these new formations, “they have, almost unnoticed, created a climate in which the necessity and wisdom of public private partnerships go unchallenged.” (127) If Hackworth argues that municipal governments are increasingly judged by their similarity to corporate structures, Dear draws a nearly identical conclusion, “a corporatist ideology has extended into planning education. Private development interests have morally and financially supported the introduction of a more development oriented curriculum. This has shifted the emphasis in planning education toward real estate development specializations, course work emphasizing market and entrepreneurial skills, and the hiring of new faculty to teach these courses.” (127) Unsurprisingly, social planning no longer merits study. Federal institutions like HUD faired poorly as a discourse of complaint identified four areas in which the organization was believed to have failed: 1) mismanagement 2) Influence peddling 3) theft and 4) deceit and cover up.

Dear’s work engages critics of postmodernism in numerous ways and areas. He identifies a basic six part cartography of complaints regarding Postmodernism: 1) “There is nothing new about postmodernism” 2) “No new era is presaged by postmodernity”- this comes from the left says Dear and they are drawing the wrong conclusion. Their hatred of capitalism leads them to expect its demise with the rise of postmodernity which Dear suggests is wrong pointing out that the shift from the agriculture capitalism to industrial capitalism. 3) “Old traditions and standards are best” – Deer employs the word cantankerously here to give you an idea of how he deals with this one, “because something is fashionable, i.e. of its time, doe not mean its it wrong.” (293) 4) “Postmodernism’s relativism has produced a cacophony of competing voices that are difficult to distinguish.” This lament argues Deer emanates from the laziest of critics who would rather dismiss other voices in order to maintain some kind of hegemonic superiority than to try and understand them. 5) “Postmodernism is antitheoretical/atheoretical” For Deer, the prefixes anti- and a- only appear when opponents most dearly held beliefs come under fire. Not enough for dismissal of the postmodern movement. 6) “Postmodernism is bad politics” Coming from both the left and the right, Deer notes that each side sees postmodernity as somehow marginalizing their own platforms. As he points out, “the failures of the body politic .. have been largely self inflicted”.

In the end, Michael Deer offers no apologies for his stance and postmodernism’s relevance. Accordingly, postmodernism represents the “way we know things, and in the way cities are created”. It is a radical break. Living in a postmodern age, a need exists to dig at truths while grasping at the “contingencies of morality and social choice”. Postmodernism provides this service. Undoubtedly, diversity, technology, synergy, hybridization, and multiculturalism all combine to create an urban condition different from that that came before. The nation and the world has been “de-centered”, postmodernism has helped to chip away at the “shame” of scholarship pushing one hegemonic perspective, granting us the ability to hear voices and perspectives previously ignored but now vital to the way we live now.

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