The Condition of Postmodernity: Chapter 2

Condition PostmodernityA summary of David Harvey’s (1989) The Condition of Postmodernity’: An Inquiry Into the Origins of Cultural Change, chapter 2.

In chapter 2, Harvey deals at length with the contradictions within Modernity, from the Enlightenment project to the 1968 counter-culture, suggesting that the fundamental contradiction is between Modernity’s quest for the immutable, which it continually undermines by producing constant change.

You might like to read my summary of chapter 1 before embarking on this chapter. 

Chapter 2: Modernity and Modernism

‘Modernity’ wrote Baudelaire in ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863) is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is the one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immutable’.

There are many conflicting meanings associated with Modernism – the cojoining of the ephemeral and the fleeting with the eternal and immutable’ is very important – and modernism as an aesthetic movement has wavered between both extremes.

Berman’s description of modernism is generally agreed on…..

To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world – and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, we know and everything we are. Modernity cuts across all boundaries, it unites all mankind…. but it is a paradoxical unity – a unity of disunity, it pours us into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration, of contradiction and struggle… to be modern is to be part of a universe in which, as Marx said ‘all that is solid melts into air’.

ModernityIn his excellent book, ‘All that is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity’, Marshall Berman shows how a number of writers tried to deal with this sense of chaos – such as Baudelaire, Dostoevsky, and Simmel – the common theme in their writing being a concern with the experience of space and time as transitory and arbitrary.

One of the pithiest examples of this is in W.B Yate’s lines…

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

The consequence of this transitoriness is that modernity can have no respect for its past – if there is any meaning in history then it has to found within the maelstrom of change, but because everything is changing, the question of how to interpret the past and the meaning of change, and the attempt to find the universals, is a fundamental problem.

The quest for the Internal and Immutable were a central concern in Modernity 

Where to look for the eternal and the immutable has been the central concern of modernity since the Enlightenment.

What Habermas calls the project of Modernity came into focus during the eighteenth century. That project amounted to an extraordinary intellectual effort on the part of Enlightenment thinkers ‘to develop objective science, universal morality and law and autonomous art according to their inner logic’. The idea was to use the accumulated knowledge of individuals for the pursuit of human emancipation from scarcity and the arbitrariness of nature – scientific domination of nature promised liberation from scarcity and rational forms of social organisation promised liberation from arbitrary power based on religion or despotism.

Enlightenment thought embraced the ideal of progress and activity and sought a break with the past… Doctrines of equality, liberty and universal reason abounded… Writers such as Condorcet truly believed that the arts and the sciences would promote control of natural forces, and understanding of the world and the self, moral progress and the happiness of human beings.

The 20th century, with its death camps and death squads, its militarism, two world wars, and threat of nuclear annihilation, shattered that optimism.

Writing in the aftermath of the holocaust and Hiroshima, Adorno and Horkheimer (in their book, ‘The Dialectic of Enlightenment’) even argued that the enlightenment project itself was doomed to turn in on itself and transform the quest for human emancipation into a system of universal oppression in the name of human liberation. For them Nazi Germany was the revolt of ‘human nature’ (culture and personality) over many decades of the dominance of purely instrumental reason over everything else.

Today there are those who still support the enlightenment project, but believe we need to rethink the relationship between means and ends; and there are those who are postmodernists who insist we need to abandon the project in the name of emancipation.

Enlightenment thought has always internalised a whole load of contradictions, and there have thus been many competing voices which seek to answer the following questions:

  • what should be the relation between means and ends? (with the role of ‘utopias’ being particularly interesting as far as I’m concerned)
  • who possesses the claim to superior reason? (and what is the role of science is central here)
  • under what conditions should that reason should be exercised as power? (obviously politics here is crucial).

There have been many competing visions put forwards to try and answer the above questions/ solve the above contradictions– from Adam Smith’s invisible hand to Marx’s work… but contradiction has been a mainstay of Modernity.

Critics of Modernity 

The Enlightenment has always had its critics, but by the early 20th Century there were two major branches of criticism:

Firstly there was Max Weber who saw a strong necessary linkage between the growth of science, rationality and universal human freedom but saw the ultimate legacy of the Enlightenment as the ultimate triumph of instrumental rationality which led to the creation of an iron cage of bureaucracy from which there was no escape.

Secondly, there was Nietzsche’s earlier attack on the premises of the Enlightenment which is the nemesis of the above.  Nietzsche saw the modern as nothing more than a vital energy, the will to live and to power, swimming in a sea of disorder, anarchy, individual alienation and despair…. Beneath the surface of knowledge and science the essence of humanity was primitive, wild and merciless, and the only path to self-affirmation was to act in a maelstrom that at the same time destructively creative and creatively destructive…. The end was bound to be tragic.

The image of creative destruction is very important to understanding modernity – and one of the classic characters which illustrates this is Goethe’s Faust who, in the very process of development transforms the wasteland into a thriving physical and social space, but recreates the wasteland inside himself, in an ethical sense – Faust ended up killing a much loved old couple who lived in a cottage by the sea because they didn’t fit in with his ‘grand plan’.

Hausmann’s creative destruction of second empire Paris is a good example of a real life Faustian figure; while the entrepreneur, championed by Schumpeter, is another more generalised figure, destroying that which was in order to profit and ‘drive society forwards’.

By the beginning of the 20th century it was no longer possible to accord reason a privileged status in the definition of the eternal and immutable essence of human nature… this gave a role and a new s. impetus to cultural modernism, basically the arts and philosophy.

This shift had a long history, in the romantics and Saint Simon, for example, saw it coming….

The problem with such sentiments is that aesthetic judgments are influenced by the societies in which they are embedded – and artists  can just as easily sway to the left or the right, even if the protagonists themselves think their artistic endeavours ‘eternal and immutable’.

Harvey now makes some very general points about the evolution of cultural modernism since 1848 (because it’s necessary to do so to make sense of the postmodern reaction).

The successful modern artist tried to distil the eternal and the immutable and the question of how to represent this in the midst of change was a key question, and they sought to innovate representations of the eternal and immutable – e.g. Joyce with his use of language; also Jackson Pollack.  Modernism tried to ‘freeze time’ in order to represent the eternal – collage and montage were popular, however, the ephemerality and change was a central part of modernism – equilibrium had to be continually re-established.

Commodification was a major part of modernism – every new artist attempted to change something in order to sell it…. ‘artists for all their anti-bourgeois rhetoric spent much more energy struggling against each other to sell their own products’. The resulting art and movement was arrogant and individualistic…. As with the Dadaists and early surrealists.

Ultimately Modernism internalised its own maelstrom of ambiguities, contradictions, and pulsating aesthetics at the same time as it sought to affect the aesthetics of daily life, and the facts of daily life had a profound effect on modernism – many modernists had a fascination with technique, speed and motion, inspired no doubt by the factories and production lines of modernity.

Modernism before the first world war was a reaction to the conditions of production (the factory), circulation (transport and communication) and consumption (the rise of mas markets and advertising) than a pioneer in the production of such changes.

Modernism consisted of diverse reactions to these changes (from William Morris to The Bauhaus) – it encompassed the futuristic, nihilistic, the revolutionary and the conservative, the naturalistic and the symbolistic, and it moves between different centres with different feels – London, Paris, Munich for example.

There were many tensions within it – between nationalism and internationalism and between globalism and parochialism for example. For a while it had an international and universalist stance – but eventually diversity based in different cities such as New York and Berlin came to be one of its major defining aspects.

Modernism was also an urban phenomenon – most notably emphasised by Simmel in his essay ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ (published in 1911).

Simmel theorised that in the city we were liberated from the chains of subjective dependence and thus allowed more individual liberty but this was achieved at the expense of treating others in objective and instrumental terms. We had no choice but to relate to the other except through faceless, cold and calculating money exchanges which could co-ordinate a vast division of labour, and we also submit to our sense of time and space being disciplined by surrendering to the hegemony of economic rationality.

Simmel argued that this produced a psychological response known as the blasé attitude – we block out most of the external stimuli and cultivate a sham individualism through the pursuit of signs – the best example of which is fashion, which according to Simmel allowed for both differentiation, as it changed rapidly, and yet conformity.

Harvey argues that in the USA the city and the machine were important drivers of modernism in the 20th century, art less so, but in Europe, the arts were more important.

Five Periods in the Development of Modernism

Harvey now suggests there are five broad periods within the development of modernism:

The Englightenment Project

The Enlightenment project argued that there was only one possible answer the every question – there existed one correct mode of representation – we see this in Condorcet and Saint-Simon for example, and Comte.

Post 1848

After 1848 the idea that there was only one possible mode of representation began to break down – there is an emphasis on the diversity of representational modes – we see this in Baudelaire for example, which exploded in the 1890s

1910 to 1913

Most commentators believed that was a further qualitative shift between 1910 and 1913. Works published around this time which demonstrate this shift include Saussure’s structuralist theory of language; Einstein’s theory of relativity; and Taylor’s principles of scientific management.  The changes in this short space of time were affected by the loss of faith the progress and by growing unease with the categorical fixity of enlightenment thought.

This shift between 1910-1911 had much to do with class struggle – it was very unclear whether it should be the workers or the bourgeois who should direct the modernist project, it was also a response to the increasing sense of anarchy, instability and despair which grew with Modernism as emphasised by Nietzsche.

Modernism between the wars

Modernism between the wars was more ‘heroic’ – as the appeal to the eternal myth became more imperative. One wing of this appealed to rationality and the machine – logical positivism for example, and the Italian Futurists, and of course Nazism.

This was a period when the always latent tensions between internationalism and nationalism, universalism and class politics were heightened into absolute and unstable contradictions…. It was hard to remain indifferent to the Russian Revolution for example.

Post 1945

Modernism after 1945 (what Harvey calls universal or high modernism) exhibited a much more comfortable relationship with the centres of power – the search for an appropriate myth abated because (Harvey suspects) of the international power system organised along Fordist- Keynseian lines and under US Hegemony this became relatively stable.

The belief in linear progress, absolute truths, and rational planning of ideal social orders was particularly strong – and the result was a positivistic, rationalistic and technocentric system to be gradually wheeled out to the third world from the first.

In the realms of planning there was a real belief that we could organise cities and housing and transport so that everyone would have access to a decent standard of living.

Its nether side lay in the celebration of corporate power and rationality and the return to the efficient machine as a sufficient myth to embody all human aspiration.  Aesthetic modernism also became depoliticised, it became part of the establishment. Art basically became part of the Corporate machine – Coca-Cola and consumerism subsumed modernist art during this period.

The Counter Culture as the Harbinger of Postmodernity

It was in this context that the various counter-cultural movements of the 1960s sprang to life – Antagonistic to the oppressive qualities of scientifically grounded technical-bureaucratic rationality as purveyed through institutionalised power the counter cultures explored realms of individualised self-realisation through embracing an anti-authoritarian critique of daily life.

All of this came to the fore in the global turbulence of 1968 -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, and hence global resistance to the hegemony of high modernist culture.

Though this 1968 movement failed, it was a cultural and political harbinger of postmodernism.

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