Last Updated on April 13, 2018 by Karl Thompson
A summary of David Harvey’s (1989) The Condition of Postmodernity’: An Inquiry Into the Origins of Cultural Change.
This is a summary of chapter three. You like to read my summaries of chapter one and two first of all:
Most would agree with Huyssen’s 1984 statement:
What appears on one level as the latest fad, advertising pitch and hollow spectacle is part of a slowly emerging cultural transformation in Western societies, and change in sensibility for which the term ‘post-modern’ is, for now, wholly adequate. I don’t want to claim that there is a wholesale paradigm shift of the cultural, social and economic orders, but in an important sector of our culture, there is a noticeable shift in sensibility, practices and discourse formations which distinguishes a post-modern set of assumptions, experiences and propositions from that of a preceding period.
With respect to architecture, Charles Jencks dates the symbolic end of modernism and the passage to the postmodern at 3.32 p.m. on 15 July 1972 when the Pruitt-Igoe housing development in St Louis (a prize-winning version of Le Corbusier’s machine for modern living) as dynamited as an uninhabitable environment.
From thereon, architecture was to be about diversity and learning from local landscapes, to build for people rather than for man.
In planning there as a similar evolution – in the 1960s planning was all about developing large-scale integrated models of cities, but by the 70s it had become more pluralistic, employing ‘organic strategies’ – rather than pursing grandiose plans, development would be approached as a cottage of highly differentiated spaces and mixtures.
Shifts of this sort can be documented in all sorts of fields – McHale (1987) argued that the postmodern was a shift form an ‘epistemological’ to an ‘ontological’ dominant – Rather than seeking to find the best perspective from which to understand complexity, questions about how radically different realities might coexist, collide and interpenetrate came to the foreground. The boundary between fiction and science fiction thus effectively dissolved.
In philosophy, there was a rage against humanism and the Enlightenment legacy, and a deep aversion to any project that sought universal human emancipation through mobilisation of the powers of technology, science and reason.
Even the Pope (John Paul II) and the Prince of Wales resorted to postmodern rhetoric in the 1980s.
Yet there was still abundant confusion as to what the ‘new structure of feeling’ might entail – Modernist sentiments may have been displaced, but there was/ is little certitude about what had replaced them:
Does postmodernism represent a radical break with modernism, or is it just a revolt against certain forms of high modernism – is it a style, or a periodising concept? Does it have revolutionary potential, or is it simply the commercialisation of modernism and part of neo-conservative politics? And how does it fit in with post-industrialisation and late-capitalism – is it just the cultural logic of late-capitalism?
Harvey now suggests that we can use the schematic differences between modernism and postmodernism as laid out by Hassan in 1975/1985, as in the table below in which Hassan sets up a series of stylistic oppositions in order capture the way in which postmodernism might be a reaction to the modern.
Hassan’s oppositions may be caricatures, but there is scarcely an arena of present intellectual practice where we cannot spot some of them at work.
The most startling fact about postmodernism is its total acceptance of the ephemerality, fragmentation, discontinuity, and the chaotic that formed the one half of Baudelaire’s conception of modernity.
Postmodernism does not look for the other half, the immutable, it swims, even wallows in the fragmentary and the chaotic currents of change as if that’s all there is.
Foucault instructs us for example to ‘develop action, thought, and desires by proliferation, juxtaposition, and disjunction, and to ‘prefer what is positive and multiple, difference over uniformity’.
Nietzsche (who Foucault draws on) made much of the deep chaos of modern life, and how rationality could not make sense of it or control it.
Embracing fragmentation and ephemerality in an affirmative fashion brings consequences – Firstly there are those such as Foucault and Lyotard who attack the possibility of there being any kind of ‘meta-theory’ – condemning meta-narratives such as Marxism and insist upon the plurality of ‘language-games’. Lyotard of course defines postmodernism simply as ‘incredulity towards meta-narratives’.
Foucault’s ideas focus on the relation between power and knowledge. Foucault (1972) breaks with the notion that power is ultimately located in the state and argues that we should conduct an ‘ascending analysis’ of power with infinitesimal mechanisms, which each have their own history, and then see how these mechanisms are invested, colonised, utilised and transformed by more general mechanisms and by forms of global domination.
The prison, the school, the hospital and the psychiatrist’s office are all examples of sites where the micro-politics of power is played out, and there is an intimate knowledge between the systems of knowledge (discourses) and the exercise of social control (power) which is independent of any systematic strategy of class domination and cannot be understood by appeal to a general theory.
The local is everything for Foucault, and the body is the site on which all forms of repression are ultimately registered – and no grand Utopian scheme can help any individual to escape the power-knowledge relation in non-repressive ways. The only way to ‘eliminate the fascism in our head’ is to explore and build upon the open qualities of human discourse and thereby intervene in the way knowledge is produced at the particular sites where a localised power-discourse prevails.
Foucault believed that it was only through a pluralistic attack upon localised forms of oppression that any global challenge to Capitalism might prevail and his ideals appealed to various social movements in the 1960s such as feminists, gays and ethnic groups, but this strategy leaves open the question of how such localised struggles might add up to a progressive rather than a regressive attack on the central forms of capitalist exploitation and oppression.
Lyotard argues that the social bond is linguistic, but it is not woven with a single thread, but by a number of indeterminate ‘language games’, and the social subject dissolves in the dissemination of these, with ‘social reality’ consisting of nothing more than flexible networks of language games, with each individual resorting to a quite different set of codes depending on the situation in which they find themselves.
Given that knowledge is the principle source of production these days, power is dispersed within the heterogeneity of language games – individuals can bend the rules of ordinary conversations to shift meanings.
Lyotard made a lot about how institutions (Foucault’s non-discursive domains) try to circumscribe what can be said and how it can be said – the law, science, politics for example – but the limits the institution imposes on potential language moves are never established once and for all – so we ought not to reify institutions prematurely, but recognise how the differentiated performance of language games creates institutional languages and powers in the first place.
Lyotard also suggests that if there are many different elements to language games they can only give rise to institutions in patches – local determinism.
One way of trying to understand Lyotard is to think of social reality as consisting of various interpretative communities made up of both consumers and producers of knowledge within particular institutionalised contexts such as the university, or divisions of cultural labour, such as architecture, or places, such as nations, and groups control mutually within these domains what they consider to be valid knowledge.
Within resistance movements – writers such as Aronowitz have taken this on, railing against master discourses, and emphasising that all groups have a right to speak for themselves – women, gays, blacks etc. etc.
This same preoccupation with otherness and other worlds exists in postmodern fiction – heterotopia is an important aspect of the genre – characters no longer contemplate how they can unravel or unmask a central mystery, but are forced to ask ‘which world is this’ and ‘what is to be done in it’ – Blue Velvet is a good example of a Postmodern film, in which the central character co-exists in two world, one a conventional small town American world, the other a crazed underworld of drugs, dementia and sexual perversion.
Lyotard’s postmodernism is rooted in Bell’s and Touraine’s thesis of the passage to a post-industrial society – modernism is no more because the technical and social conditions of communication have changed and the use of knowledge is now the principle force of production.
Postmodernists also accept a different theory to what language and communication are all had about – modernists had presupposed that there was a tight and identifiable relationship between what was being said (the signified) and how it was being said (the signifier), postmodernism sees these as continually breaking apart and re-attaching in new combinations.
Deconstructionism here is a powerful stimulus to postmodern thought. Deconstructionism is a way of thinking about ‘reading texts’ – writers who create texts do so on the basis of all the other texts they have read, while readers deal with them in the same way, and thus cultural life is a series of intersecting texts which produce more texts. This intertextual weaving has a life of its own because whatever we write conveys meanings we could not possibly intend, and it is vain to try and master a text because the perpetual weaving of texts and meanings is beyond our control.
Derrida thus considers the collage/ montage as the primary form of postmodern discourse. Culture is inherently heterogeneous and both producers and consumers engage in the postmodernist style – hence the postmodern focus on performance and ‘happenings’, and the effect is to break to the power of the author to impose meanings or offer continuous narrative.
There is more that hint of this sort of thinking within the modernist tradition – Marx observed how Capital was continually breaking things apart for example.
One problem for postmodernism is that of how we aspire to act ‘coherently’ within the world – Rorty argues that action can only be understood (judged?) by reference to localised contexts, while Lyotard argues that the idea of consensus is outmoded and suspect – the challenge then is to arrive at an idea of justice that is not linked to that of consensus.
Habermas tried to combat this kind of relativism by arguing that within communication speaker and hearer are necessarily oriented to the task of reciprocal understanding and that consensual and normative statements do arise, and thus ‘communicative reason’ is grounded in daily life (part of the problem with the enlightenment being that instrumental reason overtook communicative reason). However, Habermas has many critics.
The most problematic facet of postmodernism is its suppositions with respect to personality, motivation and behaviour:
When the signifying chain snaps, we have schizophrenia in the form of a rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers, and there is an inability to unify past, present and future in our own biographical experience of psychic life and experience is reduced to a series of pure and unrelated presents in time.
Delueze and Guattari hypothesis a relationship between capitalism and schizophrenia – ‘our society produces schizos is the same way it produces Prell shampoo or Ford cars, the only difference being that the schizos are not saleable.’
A number of consequences follow – we can no longer conceive of the individual as alienated in the classical Marxist sense because the concept of alienation presupposes a coherent self in the first place.
The Modernist idea of pursuing a better future through focussing on projects over time rested on the idea of a centred self; the theory of the schizoid self posits a self which fails to find a coherent reality in the first place, let alone a strategy to improve it (although Modernism did have its schizoid moments, and failure to live up to one’s ideas of progress led to paranoia).
To sum up the above ‘the alienation of the subject is replaced by the fragmentation of the subject in postmodern aesthetics’.
The reduction of experience to a series of pure and unrelated presents means that the present becomes overwhelmingly vivid and material – the spectacle becomes everything (following Jamieson)
The idea of progress and continuity are eschewed – postmodernism takes bits and pieces from the past and mixes them together at will. For example Rauschenerg simply reproduces, whereas Manet produces.
The only role of the historian, as with Foucault, is to become an archaeologist of the past – ‘to decry the notion of having a view while avoiding having a view about having views.’
Postmodernism can only judge the spectacle in terms of how spectacular it is – Barthes for example suggests we judge something in terms of the extent to which it produces ‘Jouissance’ – sublime physical and mental bliss.
Another consequence is the loss of depth, Jameson describes postmodern architecture as ‘contrived depthlessness’.
The collapse of time horizons and the preoccupation with instanteity have in part arisen through the contemporary emphasis in cultural production on events, happenings and media images – and this re-emphasises the fleeting qualities of modern life, and even celebrates them.
This raises the difficult question of the relationship of the postmodern movement with, and integration into daily life – there are many intersections – in architecture, advertising, fashion, and the ubiquitous television.
Exemplary examples of postmodern culture include Disneyland, the Las Vegas Strip, and Pop Music, the kind of things which Venturi et al (1972) say appeal to the middle middle classes in the suburbs.
Venturi et al see nothing wrong with such cultural artefacts as being the ‘new norm’, they believe that architects should ‘learn from Mickey-Mouse’, and that ‘Disneyland is the symbolic American Utopia’, but others are more critical:
Daniel Bell sees this as a sign of the mindless hedonism of capitalist consumerism, the exhaustion of modernism through the institutionalisation of creative and rebellious impulses through what he cause the ‘cultural mass’ of the millions of people working in the creative industries.
Still others (Chambers 1986/7) see postmodernism as the democratisation of taste across a variety of subcultures as greater diversity of youth started to pro-actively shape and re-shape their identities from the 1960s onwards.
Harvey also sites mass television watching as crucial to understanding the shift to preoccupation with surfaces rather than roots and a collapsed sense of space and time given that this is the first time in human history that the mass population can see a range of events mashed together as one via this medium.
Television didn’t simply cause postmodernism, it is itself part of capitalism which encourages consumerism, and television is a very useful tool for creating ever new needs for new styles, part of the economic fabric of postmodern society.
Still other analysists see Postmodernism as the logical extension of the power of the market over the whole range of cultural production (e.g. Crimp 1987/85).
Harvey now seems to have a subtle dig at the ‘heritage industry’ noting that 3 museums a week open in Britain – suggesting that history forever is out of our reach in midst of more simulacra.
Finally there is Jameson who argues that ‘postmodernism is the cultural logic of late capitalism’, in which the production of culture has become integrated into commodity production more generally – the need to produce more new products at a higher rate of turnover means we have to emphasises the aesthetic aspects of production much more.
To round off the chapter Harvey summarises:
‘While some would argue that the counter cultural movements of the 1960s created an environment of unfulfilled needs and repressed desires that postmodernist popular cultural production has set out to satisfy in commodity form, others would suggest that capitalism, in order to sustain its markets, has been forced to produce new desire and so titillate individual sensibilities to create a new aesthetic over and against traditional forms of high culture. In either case I think it important to accept the proposition that postmodernism has not emerged in a political, social or economic vacuum’
In other words, postmodernism is fundamentally related to capitalism.